Because a sofa often serves as the centerpiece of a room and will last many years, it’s important to select wisely. But some of the most critical features related to comfort and quality are based on what isn’t immediately visible beneath the fabric.
First and foremost is a superior foundation, namely the frame. The best are made of kiln-dried maple with dowelled and glued joints for maximum strength and shape retention. ”Sofas made this way have stability and won’t twist or give if you lift them by a corner,” notes Chris Barrett, who heads a namesake Los Angeles design firm. “With proper care from a good upholsterer, they can last for generations.”
What tops the frame is also important. The gold standard is a support system of tightly spaced springs that are hand-tied to a base of woven jute webbing. “This gives you the most resilient and longest-lasting support and the best sit,” explains Donna Feldman, who heads Dmitriy & Co. with her husband and partner, David Feldman, a bespoke upholstery atelier in New York City.
Also recommended is sinuous spring construction, which consists of s-shaped coils fastened to the frame using heavy steel wire. “It’s not handmade, but it’s more appropriate for sleeker pieces because it requires less space and can yield a lean look,” notes Dan Barsanti, who heads HB Home, a Greenwich, CT-based interior design firm, with Patricia Healing. The partners also design an upholstery line for Kindel Furniture.
Next, pay attention to padding and cushioning, which will determine the way the piece looks and feels. The materials can include time-honored horsehair and various types of foam and goose-down. Regardless of which are used the cushioning must be “well-distributed and conceal the feel of the springs and frame,” Feldman says. “You shouldn’t feel anything underneath.” Feldman believes horsehair, which has an especially long lifespan, works better than today’s most prevalent material, foam. She praises its durability and firm, but plush composition, which is why it’s often used alone in Dmitriy’s upholstered pieces. Barsanti agrees, describing how it “allows you to get tight, lovely curves with subtle decorative nuances that foam can’t provide. Some of the lines you see in sofas from the 1940s and ’50s couldn’t be achieved with foam.” But for a slightly softer seat, Dmitriy has recently developed a proprietary system that wraps luxury, high-density foam with horsehair.
Barsanti will also occasionally use high-quality foam in his custom pieces, often wrapping it down. These down-blend wraps are especially effective for cushions, notes Barrett, “because 100% down, or even 50%, can be too floppy and require constant fluffing.” For firmer pieces, she says 25% down and 75% foam represents the ideal comfort quotient.
As a last step, the best sofas are fully upholstered with fine, tightly woven muslin to provide a smooth and seamless base for the final layer of fabric. At Dmitriy, they use this stage for “sittings” so customers can experience how it feels and make adjustments. As for fabric, “some hold up better than others,” notes Barsanti, who is particularly fond of Belgian linen for its “natural sheen and resilience,” and is “anti-chenille because it looks sloppy.”
Once upholstered, the quality and workmanship of that final layer is the easiest for a customer to gauge because it’s visible. 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. Also look under the cushions to feel the springs, padding, and the back to make sure it’s firm. But ultimately, says Barrett, the best way to confirm the quality of a piece is by “knowing what to ask and using a trusted source.”