The Search is on for the Perfect Sofa

by Laura Barnett Designs TCW

Selecting a sofa can be a daunting task. It is the cornerstone of your room and thereby, most important piece of seating. Getting it right can make the difference between loving your room and hating it. Today’s market provides more options than ever before, but sometimes it’s hard to know what’s right for you. Where do you begin? Of course it should be beautiful and it absolutely has to be comfortable, but what are the elements that constitute these attributes? What do you look for when shopping for your new sofa?

Many manufacturers offer custom details that allow you to design your sofa from the ground up. You can choose the arm, cushion, and base options to suit your personal style or compliment the other pieces of furniture in your room.  To help clarify, traditional details usually are pleated or English arms, backs with a rolled detail, and skirted or dressmaker skirts. Contemporary or modern details include track (square) arms and boxed backs, upholstered bases or metal legs. Far larger and more ambiguous are transitional elements. Many of those can go either way. Rolled arms, boxed cushions, knife edge cushions, upholstered bases, and wooden legs can be right at home with either group depending upon the actual detail of the element. It can be confusing, but as a rule of thumb, remember that less detail is more contemporary, more detail is traditional and a combination emerges as transitional styling.

Before you shop, get out your tape measure. First, take your room size into consideration. You want to make sure there is enough room to comfortably walk between the pieces of furniture, but you also want to make sure the room doesn’t feel overstuffed or empty. The most beautiful sofa in the world will look ridiculous if the scale is too large or small for the space. Scale does not necessarily refer to the overall size (length, depth, and height) but describes the girth of the individual elements. An 84? sofa can look enormous or emaciated depending on the details. Does the sofa have a high back, big, rounded arms, or overstuffed marshmallow seat cushions?  If so, consider it for a larger room or it could over-power the space. Sofas that have narrow arms or are on legs will appear “lighter” than pieces having fabric bases or skirts reaching down to the floor.  Lower backs will also take up less space visually and the result will be a sense of spaciousness. They won’t act as a ‘wall’ of furniture and block your view of the rest of the room.

Second, take your size into consideration. When you sit in a sofa, your feet should touch the ground and your knees should bend at a 90 degree angle from your thighs. When you sit back into the sofa, you shouldn’t have to strain your back, but be able to ease into the seat. You don’t want the back cushion to push you forward either. Sitting with your knees up around your ears or your feet dangling off the floor will not be comfortable for long. Both the seat height and the seat depth will contribute to these conditions. So if you have long legs, a sofa with a higher and or deeper seat will fit you better. If you’re shorter and still want to be able to curl your feet up under you at some point, choose a sofa with a lower seat height so when you do want your feet on the floor, they will reach!

The arm height in relation to the seat height is also critical. Your elbow should rest comfortably on the arm without your having to bend at the waist to reach down or angle it high to reach up for it. Ask yourself if you would be comfortable reading a book with your arm in that position and you’ll know if it’s right.

If you are informed of the seat, arm, and back heights, along with the seat depth that is most comfortable, you can easily measure pieces that feel good when you sit in them and then translate those dimensions to help you select other items. This will even make it possible to buy a sofa from a catalog without having sat in it, which is a scary thought for most. Have someone measure you in a seated position. Knowing the distance from the floor to the crook of your knee will help you determine the perfect seat height, then turn the corner and measure from the crook of your knee to your back to determine seat depth. Next, take measurements of the furniture you already own that fits you well.

Nancy Knapp’s husband, Paul, is very tall, but she is not. When she first sat in the sofa that fit him comfortably, it swallowed her up! When she scooted back to sit upright, her feet dangled off the ground. The solution was to introduce an additional back cushion which shortened the seat depth, allowing her to sit upright and have her feet touch the ground.

While it may not be perfect for everyone, it is possible to get a sofa that will work for the whole family by averaging out the dimensions. Or, choose one that has multiple back cushions. That way you can add them for the shorter person or take them away for those with longer legs. Better yet, consider who will actually sit on the sofa most often and cater to that person. No sense trying to fit the sofa to the individual who will only be sitting in the lounge chair.

Size is not the only component to comfort, the fill of the seat and back cushions is also important to how that sofa will feel. Most high-end sofas have seat cushions with foam or spring cores that are wrapped with feathers and down. The down “gives” when you sit allowing you to sink in to the cushion, but the core provides stability, preventing you from bottoming out. If the cushion were filled completely with down, you’d have no support and if it were completely foam it could be either very spongy and bouncy or hard as a rock, but this will vary.  Down requires constant fluffing and cushion flipping, but it does provide a most luxurious “sit." Many manufacturers are using a synthetic ‘comfort down’ which could work for you—especially if you have allergies. Loose cushions will provide more “give” and are usually more comfortable than tightly upholstered options.


The fill will also impact how a sofa looks. A hard edge, high tech sofa would look
very strange if the cushions were soft and cushy, while this attribute is perfect
for a traditional piece. The solution is to look at and sit on cushions of various
styles and different fills. Remember Goldilocks and keep testing! Some will
be too hard, some too soft, too large, or too small, but be persistent. Armed
with these guidelines, you will find one that will be just right.

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