Jessica Lagrange Interiors LLC

What’s the Best Sofa to Buy?  What You Can’t See Counts Most

Buy the best basics you can afford.  We’ve all heard that before, but a recent Wirecutter article on sofa buying advice reminded us how important this guidance is when it comes buying important pieces of furniture. And by our assessment (and that of theMOST10.com), sofas are the most widely used piece of furniture in our homes.  After all, you can sleep on a sofa if need be—and more—but beds aren’t quite as versatile.

Sofas ground a space functionally and aesthetically by defining its layout, making it serviceable, providing comfort and expressing its aesthetic. The A. Rudin sofa pictured here is a hardwood frame covered in a down/foam mix. (Image: Jessica Lagrange Interiors)

But sofas cost serious money, especially good ones. And as luxury interior designers, we’re big believers in buying the best quality sofa possible. A pretty sofa doesn’t’ do you much good if it’s uncomfortable, a bad fit for your needs or it falls apart.  Buying a sofa requires insight that goes beyond the obvious—namely how it looks and feels. A sofa’s lasting comfort and quality is based on what you can’t see underneath the fabric that sheathes it. 

Opulent details, including sumptuous suede skins, brass nail heads and silk bullion fringe, up the grandeur on Richard Shapiro’s Studiolo Club Sofa. (Image: Jessica Lagrange Interiors)

The quality of the frame, suspension, cushioning and upholstery are what separate a sofa that will last 10 to 20 years from one that will start to wobble or look dingy after only a few,” noted Wirecutter.  Saying we agree is understatement!  Clients ask us all the time for recommendations on the best sofa brands. There’s no such think as the best brand, but rather construction details that differentiate quality sofas from inferior ones. Here are the five details we consider when we choose sofas for our clients.

Given the importance of sofas in grounding a space and providing comfort, we had John Hutton customize his sofas to mirror the curves of this media room.  (Image: Jessica Lagrange Interiors).

What’s the frame made of?  First and foremost, we look for a superior foundation. The best frames are made out of kiln-dried hardwood with dowelled and glued joints for maximum strength, support and long-term shape retention.  Sofas made this way have the best stability. They won’t twist or give if you lift them by a corner.  And with proper care from a good upholsterer, they can last for generations.

Kiln-dried hardwood frames topped with jute webbing create a strong, durable and supportive base for sofas.  The process is illustrated here by Jonas Fine Upholsterers.  (Image: Jonas Fine Upholsterers)

What’s the support system?  In fine upholstery, the gold standard is a support system of tightly spaced springs that are hand-tied to a base of woven jute webbing, and each other, in eight different places. Another support method, which has gained ground in recent years, is sinuous spring construction, a name that actually refers to the s-shaped coils that are fastened to the frame using heavy steel wire and supports. It’s not handmade, but used for sleeker pieces because it requires less space and can yield a lean look.

Fine sofas use a support system of tightly spaced springs hand-tied to a woven jute webbing base, and each other, in eight different places. (Image: Jonas Fine Upholsterers)

What’s the padding material?  The padding and cushioning tops the frame and support system determines the way the piece looks, sits and feels. The materials used to achieve this can include time-honored horsehair, various types of foam and goose-down. They are often combined, so what really matters is the way the cushioning is distributed. That’s because it must conceal the feel of the springs and frame.  Foam is most prevalent today, but horsehair has a remarkably long lifespan. Some sofa styles can’t be achieved with foam, which is why many lines use high quality premium foam in combination with down that’s wrapped around it.  These are called down-blend wraps, and the pairing is especially effective for cushions because 100 percent down, or even 50 percent, can be too floppy and require constant fluffing.

The time-honored gold standard in fine upholstery has long been hand-stitched horsehair, which Jonas Upholsterers uses today because it doesn’t break down and can be shaped into sculptural forms. High quality down and foam are also used today. (Image: Jonas Upholsterers)

How is the padding enclosed?  The last construction step for fine and custom sofas is a layer or fine, tightly woven muslin to provide a smooth and seamless base for the final layer of fabric. This is particularly important with down. Fine bench made sofas are tested with sittings so customers can experience the sit and make adjustments before the final fabric layer is applied.    

Layers of burlap, cotton and down, or foam if used, are covered with muslin to create a final form. (Image: Jonas Upholsterers)

What’s the fabric?  The fabric you choose will go a long way towards ensuring the vigor and durability of your piece.  Some fabrics hold up better than others.  For instance, Belgian linen has a natural sheen and resilience, while chenille can stretch and looks sloppy.  We choose fabrics that are not only beautiful but also durable, a measure that is defined by its double-rub, or Wyzenbeek ranking.  But our final step is to have a knitted backing that is made specially for upholstery fabric bonded to the fine fabrics we use to give them stability, durability, a better hand a most significantly—a longer life.

We check every detail on a sofa, from its seams and corners to cords and trims, when it’s delivered to our clients. This custom piece by Waldo’s is sheathed in cashmere that’s been tightly woven for durability and trimmed with brass nail heads. (Image: Jessica Lagrange Interiors)

How we make a final decision.  When a sofa is fully finished, the quality and workmanship of the final layer is the easiest to gauge because it’s visible. We inspect all the sewn details, from seams and corners to welts and cording, to make sure the stitching is tight and finished without any loose threads—but also look under the cushions, feel the springs, feel the padding and shake the back to make sure it feels solid.  But you can only see so much when the piece is done, so ultimately, the best way to be sure of the quality of a piece is by knowing what to ask, and using trusted sources, when buying sofas.   

07 Nov 2018

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