Chances are, if you’re in your 20s, the only couches you’ve ever owned were hand-me-down freebies or thrift-store finds, the spitting image of what slipcovers were invented to disguise. If you’re lucky, that sofa has served you well despite its obvious flaws (the food stains, claw marks, its resemblance to a dirty Shar Pei) and less apparent shortcomings (it’s too short to lie on, too long for the room, the evasive spring that pokes you in the butt cheek). Perhaps you even feel some amount of loyalty to this otherwise worthless piece of furniture, that if you don’t keep it safe in your living space, its next home will be the Dumpster.
At some point, however, the time will come to put sentimentality aside and replace that embarrassing mess of cushions with a couch you can live with and be proud of. When that moment arrives, you’ll need the well-trained tough love that only the Couch Coach can impart.
On the field of home décor, the sofa is home plate, the spot you want to feel most comfortable before heading out to first base or back to the dugout (the bed, naturally). The couch needs to be comfortable but not too lumpy, so you can get your bearings without sinking in. Its surface must not agitate your senses, and its style should suit your own.
Additionally, the couch must be a team player with your lifestyle and the rest of the furniture in the room. Adding a couch to your roster is a major decision, but don’t be intimidated. The process can be broken down into six S’s: Size, Shape, Structure, Style, Stuffing, and Surface. Once you line up those major players (plus the cost of the thing, which is important but doesn’t start with S), choosing your new couch is just a trot around the bases.
The sofa in a one-couch household tends to serve three main purposes: It’s the furniture you lounge on daily, the piece your guests (from college roomies to in-laws) sit on, and the piece your guests (see options above) sleep on when they stay over. The couch must stand up to all of those responsibilities and still be the significant tone-setter in your living space.
Lisa Sorensen, owner of Bliss Home, the sophisticated home furnishings shop in Market Square, navigates a list of decisions similar to a solo couch-buyer’s. “When we’re looking for a couch, it’s going to be something that’s comfortable, generally with pretty clean lines, not too contemporary—not crazy—maybe a little bit,” she says. In other words, somewhat retro and funky but not wacky (sofas shaped like lips are out), plus well made and affordable. They’re even delving into sofas that are—get this—both attractive and convert into beds. “There’s furniture you’re living on and furniture that your guests are sitting on. Although many people downtown in lofts don’t have that separate space. So it’s got to be both.”
Take into account a sofa’s size . A couch can be the most stunning piece of furniture you’ve ever laid eyes on, but if it won’t fit through the doors or windows of your house, tough luck. A recent Bliss Home customer took multiple measurements of his dream couch and his home’s entryways and ultimately had to throw in the towel because the laws of physics just wouldn’t bend for him. Another couple living on the square chucked the idea of a couch altogether, opting instead for side-by-side recliners.
Consider also your room’s dimensions. Furniture showrooms have notorious mind-bending properties that can confuse your sense of space. Their half-walls and high ceilings can make you forget how small your house really is. If your den is an overgrown closet with a TV on one end, don’t fall hopelessly in love with an L-shaped sectional.
Design also contributes to a couch’s sense of belonging. An overstuffed number, especially when accompanied by a matching chair and ottoman, can take up a lot of visual space and fill a room to capacity. A slim-lined sofa of comparable comfort and length can strike a smaller impression more suitable to a space-challenged room.
Which leads to the issue of shape , which is inextricably linked to style . Certain shapes speak of fashion influences and in turn say things about you. An antique mahogany settee says that you are prim and proper and hopefully have an actually comfortable couch in another room. A poofy, leather couch that looks like an elephant’s hind end says you either inherited the piece from your pimp uncle or you yourself are looking into going into the world’s oldest profession. A camelback sofa says you’re classic and unique. An armless sectional says you live life without boundaries.
Clearly, you want to be in charge of the message your couch sends about your personal aesthetic. And there are the nitty-gritty issues: a tight vs. a loose upholstered look; round arms vs. squared arms; short arms, tall arms; three cushions, two cushions or one cushion.
Cyndie Johnston, an interior design graduate and former employee of furniture design firm Craig Nealy, now works at Bliss Home as their resident designer. She says designers study proxemics, or how people relate to each other spatially. For example, depending on the household in question, a couch with one long cushion may invite multiple sitters. However, in the case of the white Isamu Noguchi couches that help give Gay Street bar Sapphire its ultra-modern flair, Johnston says, she never sees multiple strangers share the continuous cushion. The same might also be said for the brightly colored no-back couches at the Knoxville Museum of Art’s SubUrban Thursdays events. While those rules might not apply at home, couch shapes have adapted to suit their users.
“Couches have evolved,” says Sorensen, referring to an armless modern sectional with a chaise longe on the end. “Ten years ago, couches weren’t like that. And now we have people coming in and saying they want two chaises to put together, so they can both sit and watch TV. It’s almost like a bed.”
All these shapes evoke different styles. There’s probably an online quiz to help people concisely define their style, but, really, it boils down to what you like and what you don’t. And since nothing’s new under the sun, most ’00-era couches out there will echo the past few decades.
In the ’70s, couches of all shapes and sizes (though mostly big and lumpy) were covered with atrociously busy fabrics in popular color-combos, like brown and orange and green and gold. Stylish ’80s and ’90s couches were probably flowered or plaid with backrests like giant triple chins.
Today’s hippest couch is a direct throwback to the era of Modern architecture with hardly a lump in sight. With squared arms, squared backs and squared legs, today’s hottest couches are angular and proper enough to make any living space look like an urban loft apartment. To some they may look better suited to a doctor’s office than a living room, but that’s fashion for you.
In the middle ground between the modern streamliner and the upholstered Moonwalk is a sofa that strikes a seemingly timeless profile. The comfiest-looking have interchangeable slipcovers; the more tightly upholstered ones have elegant feet without looking like something your great-grandma bought with war bonds.
An important question to ask yourself is: How do I feel about feet? Some couches don’t have them, or hide them with pleated fabric. Some couches’ feet are ornate, some plain; some are metal, some are wood. Some are thick and masculine; some are hardly more than spokes. You don’t have to be a fetishist to like them. But, like a couch’s arms, they speak multitudes about the piece’s character and attitude.
Regardless of the diverse new offerings on the market, some folks are nuts for antique sofas. Those in the best shape are rare and expensive says Kelly Phibbs, proprietress of Chintzy Rose on Maynardville Highway. Antique sofa frames are more likely to have been made from strong hardwoods, which can make them sturdier than cheaper modern constructions. Phibbs quotes one of her friends who swears that the cost of rebuilding a sofa from an antique frame will result in a couch that’s still better than those being made today.
“Most of them you find are going to need a little work,” she says, but the cost may be worth it to folks who want a couch like no one else’s.
Structure and stuffing are important details that are less obvious but make a heckuva difference in the long run. Bill Cox Jr., who has been in the furniture business for 22 years, says most of his customers are easily distracted by what a couch looks like on the outside and not concerned enough with its insides, which is truly the test of quality.
“We preach the inside. They buy the outside,” says Cox from his Lovell Road showroom. In addition to Sorensen’s recommendations of choosing frames made of kiln-dried hard woods that are both screwed and glued together, Cox emphasizes the piece’s spring system. An eight-way, hand-tied spring system is the best, he says, while webbing (think lawn furniture) is the cheapest and least resilient. Sinuous springs and coil springs fall somewhere in between.
Cox says employees in his showrooms help couch-buyers make decisions based on how much they can spend which equates how long they intend their couch to last. “It’d be nice if you could buy a $399 eight-way, hand-tied couch,” he says, alluding to the bargain-basement prices of some discount showrooms, “but you can’t.”
You also can’t discern a couch’s quality from sitting on it, Cox says. Only time and wear will reveal the good from the cheap.
Sofas’ comfort-making contents are either foam or a mixture of down and foam. For those not allergic to it, down can make a serious difference in a couch’s cushy factor. But it’s not entirely maintenance free.
“You’re going to have to fluff them,” says Sorensen. Down cushions (you want the kind that’s sewn into channels so the feathers can only shift around so much) deflate and get out of whack, “so if you’re not into fluffing, you should not buy a couch with down.”
Foam doesn’t require fluffing, or improve much with it, but you want it to keep its shape. Foam’s density is measured by weight, so the heavier the foam, the less air it contains and the less it gives when sat upon. Like a mattress, your choice in that area depends on your firmness preference.
Probably the most enjoyable part of the couch, its most distinguishing feature, is its surface . It’s the color, the texture, the feel-good part that comes in contact with your skin. For every kind of fabric used to cover couches there are equal and opposite reasons to choose some other fabric. One of the best choices on the market is Smart Suede or microsuede, a pure polyester fabric that really looks and feels like suede. It repels water and can be cleaned using water-based products; other fabrics like wool blends and such require chemical cleaners like Renuzit. Cotton-based fabrics absorb liquid and stain more easily than polyester blends, which might not feel as good to the touch. And treating your fabric with Scotchgard to make it water-repellant can void your warranty. The trick seems to satisfy your senses while knowing how to clean a stain at a moment’s notice.
What about color? Sorensen and Johnston are adamant about one thing that’s obvious the instant you walk into Bliss Home: solid print couches. “Couches are bigger, and you’re going to be looking at it all the time,” says Sorensen. Johnston also always recommends people begin with a one-color, preferably neutral, couch. “I always think of it as your staple clothing,” she says. “Like black pants, black dress, or jeans. You don’t go completely nuts on that stuff because it’s your staple.”
Grays, browns, black, beiges in plentiful fabric blends counter the notion that a non-color couch limits your options. And even a solid color—like an emerald green chenille fabric swatch reminiscent of moss—can act like a neutral given the right accessories. A plain couch gets dressed up with vibrant pillows, which can be changed with the season or your moods. Save the funky prints for the side chairs and the rugs.
A note about leather: Some people dig leather. Those people will pay double and forever fret about pets’ claws, kids with scissors, and clumsy winos.
Actually, such worries are shared by all but the most Zenned-out couch owners—worries that must be acknowledged when couch-shopping but then put mostly out of mind. Because you can’t worship a sofa so much that its artistic value overwhelms its usefulness. Save that reverence for something that hangs on the wall in a frame, far away from cat hair and dog pee. Couch-hunting is a game worth playing. Just take it once couch at a time.