Does My Bum Look Big On This? The Ultimate Sofa Buying Guide
Photos: (Main) Natuzzi, (Below) Love Your Home, John Lewis, Loaf
“Don’t be afraid to take your time and quiz the store on construction type, foam quality etc. The more you interrogate the sofa’s credentials, the more likely you are to make the right choice for you, not the salesman”.
Are you sitting comfortably, no? Then we’ll begin…
Staying in has become the new going out, with many of us preferring to have friends round instead. No surprise then, that we’re in the golden age of TV with Amazon, Sky and Netflix all now producing their own shows, so what better time to look at the humble sofa.
If you’ve looked lately you’ll know the wealth of choice is exhausting. Priced not far off a small car, buying a sofa is an investment and one you’ll be living with for years so it’s important not to buy just on looks. Let’s break it down to make sure the important factors are also in the mix enabling you to shop with confidence and make an informed choice.
Before looking at colours, styles or fabrics here’s a few gems worth thinking about;
Function – sounds obvious, but being clear on the reason for buying from the outset will help in narrowing the search. Is it a sofa bed for guests, a kids sofa for gaming, to curl up reading, for socialising or mostly home cinema? Each has different priorities – high squidgy arms for reading, chaise or modular with footstool for home cinema, cheaper for kids or with stain guard, or a bigger long-term investment for adult socialising.
Experience – note what you like / dislike about your existing sofa. Do you have to plump the cushions up every day, does it sag, mark easily, make the room small, is it actually comfortable? Identifying what does and doesn’t work will help to get the next one exactly right.
Comfort – naturally this is personal so really take time in showrooms to find the right comfort level for you. Be fussy and don’t be pressured into making a purchase just because a showroom has become your second home.
Size – does my bum look big on this? Think about how many people you need to sit including the maximum if you host Christmas regularly.
Proportion – yes, size matters. You’d think this was totally obvious, yet the biggest mistake I see is this one. Sofas that are way too big for the space and end up shoehorned in, making the room feel cluttered and small, or so big it wouldn’t go in the house on delivery. Painful disappointment we can all do without, especially if that sofa was special order……and non-returnable. Now I have your attention, right? Many companies (e.g. Love Your Home) will tweak their designs to fit, making them slightly shorter, longer or narrower.
Trends – bear in mind how long you will be living with the sofa and be careful of following trends. True style is knowing trends but going your own way anyway. That powder puff pink may be amazing today, but could be ghastly in three years. However, if the trend happens to be exactly what you’ve dreamt of then go for it – don’t spite yourself just because it’s trending and you feel you don’t want to be seen following the crowd, If it’s right, it’s right.
Budget – how much do you want to invest? Whatever your available spend, buy the best you can within that price bracket. For budget, Ikea is a great shout, for high-end try Natuzzi (latest looks have shaken off that 80’s image), George Smith offer classic luxe with quality you can trust given you’ll find them in high traffic establishments like The Ivy and Soho House (George Smith now manufacture for it’s retail arm Soho Home too).
Ok, so you’ve cracked the essentials, now it’s time to look at detailed options. Nope, not the pretty stuff yet, the cushion filling, support and frame will determine comfort and ability to retain shape and stability.
Construction – what lies beneath
Cushions – broadly speaking there are three main types of fillings, none of which are better or worse, assuming good quality materials and build;
Foam – good quality foam is firm and supportive making it a good choice for socialising or if you have a back issues. Cushions spring back requiring no plumping, just occasional turning, maintaining a crisp, tailored look. Note that cheaper foam sofas will lose volume and support more quickly.
Fibre/Foam Wrap is a soft polyester wrapped around a foam core which provides good support with a softer top layer for a more gentle sit than full foam. Plump cushions occasionally to maintain the look. Great for gaming, home cinema or socialising.
Feather, Down or Fibre Filled has a relaxed squidgy feel and much softer sit like marshmallow, perfect for curling up with a book or film. Look out for feathers etc held in cells to maintain an even spread. As with feather/down bed pillows the cushions will need plumping daily and turning weekly to restore the look. Down is the most expensive of feather and fibre options. Opt for memory foam or silicone if allergic to feathers.
Support – again, quality here is important for the long term;
Coil Sprung is similar to that in a mattress, offering comfort and a high level of support.
Pocket Springs are coils enveloped in individual fabric jackets offering maximum support and considered superior and longer lasting than coil spring.
8-way hand tied is a traditional method where the coils are hand tied to protect the fabric from the coils.
Zig-Zag, Serpentine, Superloop, Sinuous spring construction offer different tensions using S-shaped rather than coil springs, giving a firmer sit.
Fish mouth springs are similar to coil, but positioned facing out from the edge of the seat, opening and closing like a mouth as you sit/rise. Less expensive than a coil spring sofa, but gives strong front edge support.
Webbing is the oldest way used for support, with runs of thick elastic in a grid. Usually used on cheaper sofas, though tensioners are used in combination in more expensive models.
Frame – it goes without saying, the sturdier the better.
The best frames are heavy, made from kiln-dried hardwood (teak, birch or beech) to remove moisture. Non kiln-dried wood can shrink, crack and bend.
Quality manufacturers will also give joints special attention as these take the strain, using dowels and screws or bolts, possibly with reinforcing blocks for extra strength. Try lifting a corner – too light and it’s not hardwood, if you lift a corner the nearest one should lift too, if not, the frame is bending and isn’t rigid enough.
Design & Style
Hoorah, at last, the fun bit, which I totally know was your starting point wasn’t it?!
Colour, design and style are really important, but I want to make sure you really know what you’re buying first. By now your list of sofas should have reduced considerably as you’ve whittled down your comfort/construction preferences and checked the proportions, so let’s look at layout.
Layout – some rooms dictate the layout due to limited space or key features like fireplace and door locations – on the bright side this makes life easy. However if your room presents numerous scenarios, imagine the space as a blank cube and position the furniture in ways you wouldn’t usually consider: two sofas facing each other or with backs to the garden for example, which may create a better social space and accommodate a couple of extra seats. Think about footstools, coffee or side tables, protruding plugs in sockets and where lighting will sit, especially if you like to read.
Dimensions – when you’ve chosen a sofa double check the dimensions the room can comfortably take. If you have time to sketch it out, measure the room (noting door swings / windows / fixed position furniture) and scale down with a ruler, eg; 1mtr = 1cm. This really helps to play around, but I would also recommend marking out on the floor as a final check with newspaper, marking tape or your existing furniture. Walk around the space, taking account of the new sofa height too. Leave it laid out over a few days if you can, so you live with it before committing to the real deal. This could save you from huge disappointment and a costly mistake.
Colour – this is a big subject in it’s own right, so I’m going to give a little bit of guidance here because this feature is really all about what lies beneath. Basically there are two options; bold sofa with neutral cushions to tone it down, or neutral sofa with bold cushions, rugs, accent chair or curtains to do the talking. If colour is your thing then be guided by this. If you think you’ll get bored quickly choose neutral so you can change the walls and accessories for a fresh look. Whichever way you go, just remember, if you’ve invested a lot of money you may not want to change your sofa this side of 5 years.
Style – again, a huge subject that I’m going to simplify into classic, contemporary and modern, which pretty much covers all sofas. Classic styles are timeless so they won’t date, usually with rounded arms, curved back cushions and turned wood feet, often on castors. They look slightly old fashioned if you prefer contemporary, which is ultra modern with clean, simple, boxy lines and straight metal or wooden feet. Modern encompasses mid-century modern, think the series Mad Men. Sofas are characterised by slim spindle legs usually in teak, a crisp silhouette and slender arms (Made.com offer sofas inspired by this style, try: Ritchie, Dylan or Scott). Modern also covers Scandi style, again, simple lines in a muted Nordic colour palette of tactile fabrics in cool grey, blue, white shades, and pretty much every other style of sofa (except the puffed up ugly ones that you’re not going to consider…are you? There is no accounting for taste as they say, however, if I had my way all the over-designed, puffed up, ugly sofas would be banned! They’re not necessary to maximise comfort when so many stylish options exist. Don’t do it, they’re hideous. Keep it simple).
Finishes – the UK’s best selling sofa fabric is a cotton/linen blend which looks beautiful on purchase but be aware it makes for a great cat scratching post and fades badly in sunlight so be mindful of its position. Wool also pills and bobbles.
Leather is much more hard-wearing and wipe clean, but not all leather is made equal:
Full-Grain Pure Aniline Leather is the most authentic, luxurious and expensive option – soft, supple, with a rich natural texture that will gain natural charm as it wears. (For luxury leather try Natuzzi).
Full Grain Semi-Aniline is the same with a thin top coat to protect and give uniformity.
Top-Grain leather refers to the hide being sanded off and a leather grain imprint applied for uniformity, note it does not indicate a premium product as is widely assumed.
Split leather is harder and less robust.
Bonded leather which is only 17% leather bonded with inferior liners should be avoided.
Not everyone is a fan of leather in which case look at mohair, which is having a real resurgence for its luxe lustre and robust yet tactile appeal (try George Smith and Soho Home). Also consider robust plains which are perfect for families, man-made velvets (ask for information on wear as velvet can bruise) and matt cottons with built in stain-guard, that are better suited to wear and tear (and jammy fingers). View samples at home in different lights (artificial and natural) as colours can vary significantly. Try Loaf, Sofa Workshop and John Lewis.
And lastly, don’t be afraid to take your time and quiz the store on construction type, foam quality etc. The more you interrogate the sofa’s credentials, the more likely you are to make the right choice for you, not the salesman.
12 Exclusive Insider Tips
- Ask for the Martindale Rub Count – the higher the number the more durable the fabric.
- Check the seat depth and seat height to make sure your feet touch the floor. If you’re heading into your twilight years this is more important to maintain easy mobility.
- Leather sofas should be about 30cm away from radiators to avoid cracking. Check which leather is used.
- Sunlight will fade leather and fabrics – turning cushions regularly will help slow fading.
- Avoid ply/particleboard construction especially if held together with staples, or make sure it has at least 11-13 layers of plywood for strengthening.
- Avoid polyurethane wrapped foam alone, which is the cheapest and won’t last long. Opt for high-density foam or Blendown pads which are Dacron wrapped in down.
- Access – can your sofa make it into the room? Check door widths and if in doubt speak with the supplier to make sure it can be delivered.
- Limited access or smaller spaces? Look for sofas with low slender arms, low backs and shallower depths to keep in proportion in smaller spaces, or manoeuvre around tricky access obstacles. Feet will give an illusion of space because more of the floor is visible (check they are removable for access).
- Fire Regulations – sofas (incl footstools, scatter cushions & chairs) must comply to regulations. Reputable high street manufacturers and suppliers should meet these requirements as standard, indicated with a label fixed to the furniture. Don’t remove the fire label as you’ll need this should you wish to sell your sofa with confidence when you next upgrade. Be careful if buying old, vintage or second hand sofas that may have been manufactured pre-legislation. It’s not illegal to own them, but it is to include it in a rental property for example (ref: 1993 amendments to The Furniture & Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) regulations 1988).
- Guarantee? Look for 5-10 years at least.
- Be aware of lead times. Generally these can be around 6-8 weeks for made-to-order, or longer for bespoke configurations.
- Note that your new sofa may not initially be as comfy as that in the showroom, which has been worn in already.