Buyer’s guide to sofas

  • Wed May 5th, 2010 4:27pm
  • Life

By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz Chicago Tribune

Buying a new sofa is not a task to take on lightly.

You want comfort, style, durability, fabric that will withstand a spill and color that’ll hide pet hair. And you don’t want to pay too much. But what’s too much?

Prices can vary wildly. Some of the differences are cosmetic, but most of what separates the high end from the low end is under the hood.

Pricier sofas generally have goose-down cushions for ultimate softness and are made with the most durable materials. You’re also paying for the design quality, the knowledge of the sales staff and customization.

Ultimately, said Peter Howlett at high-end furniture maker George Smith, where sofas run between $10,000 and $20,000, you’re paying for longevity.

Here’s what goes into sofas at each end of the price spectrum:

Low-end sofas

Ikea Karlstad sofa: 81 inches, with cotton slipcover.

Price: $499.

Construction: You put it together. Particleboard, plywood, fiberboard frame; joints secured with corner blocks, staples, screws.

Cushions: High-resilience polyurethane foam with polyester wadding.

Customization: Slipcovers available in 11 colors, removable and machine washable.

Waiting time: Usually none. Mostly everything is in stock.

High-end sofas

George Smith Signature sofa: 72 inches, in a basket weave linen.

Price: $10,685.

Construction: Hand-built by craftsmen. Kiln-dried beech and birch wood frame; joints secured with dowels.

Cushions: 80 percent feather, 20 percent down.

Customization: Everything including size, fabric and decorative touches such as welts and buttoning.

Waiting time: Could be 10 to 12 weeks after they receive the fabric from the supplier.

Custom sofas

Here’s a look at some popular retailers:

n Pier 1

Customize: Color.

How it works: Three sofa styles are available in four different colors each.

Cost: $699.95 to $799.95.

How long it takes: 14 days.

n Crate and Barrel

Customize: Fabric, color, size, cushions.

How it works: The store’s 2,000-plus fabric collection is available, or bring your own. You can also customize frame size and cushion core (what’s inside) on some styles.

Cost: Varies depending on the style and fabric chosen.

How long it takes: Eight to 10 weeks.

n Room and Board

Customize: Fabric, color.

How it works: Choose your options online at You can put any of 240 fabrics on any frame.

Cost: Varies. The 88-inch Metro three-cushion usually sells at $1,399 for polyester microsuede. It costs $1,799 when customized in a velvet fabric.

How long it takes: Six to seven weeks. Bonus: If you don’t like it, you can return it and pay a 10 percent cancellation fee.

Find a fabric

Interior designer and style blogger Nick Olsen offers some advice on choosing fabrics:

Microsuede or ultrasuede: Unbeatable for stain resistance. Another resilient option is cotton velvet. Belgian linen or cotton canvas in summer. Beware of gorgeous fabrics like silk velvet: one water stain, and it’s there forever.

Trends: Classic, crisp and tailored.

Color: Choose a neutral and add color with throw pillows or throws. Darker colors and patterns hide stains and imperfections, but beware of muddy colors, which look dreary.

Online: Always request a fabric swatch.

Slipcover: A tight-fitting slipcover lets you change colors without reupholstering.

Smart sofa shopping

Here are five tips for this big-budget item, courtesy of furniture maker Mitchell Gold.

1. Measure: Go shopping armed with precise measurements of stairwells, elevator, doors, hallways, garden gates and any other space your new sofa might have to squeeze through.

2. Test drive: In the store, sink into the sofa the way you would at home. Lie down and put your feet up, and test its comfort. Make sure the armrests are well-padded: no wood poking through.

3. Construction: The sturdiest frames will be made of kiln-dried hardwood like maple, poplar, beech or oak, or engineered hardwood. Avoid air-dried wood or soft woods, like pine. Joints secured with corner blocking, dowels and screws will last longer than glue and staples. It’s best to have a ticking between the foam cushion and fabric cover. Check for even stitching.

4. Cushions: The softest, most luxurious cushions are filled with goose down, but need regular fluffing. Less expensive cushions, high-resiliency foam compresses and springs back to shape. A happy medium: An inner foam core wrapped with a down cover.

5. Design details: A roll arm is more traditional, while a square or straight arm looks more modern. If you want to put the sofa in the middle of the room, make sure the back is presentable.