It's the workhorse of your living room, subjected to spills, snacks and couch surfers, so should you spend a lot or a little? The New York Times analyzes the couch. Writer Steven Kurutz investigates sofas, from budget to designer, to discover exactly how such similar designs can have such different price tags. Is it simply the frame, foam and fabric, or do your extra dollars pay for the very designers and marketing campaigns that necessitate the high sticker price?
And should you bother buying a last-forever model, or will that force you to be too careful to ever be comfortable? Your sofa should reflect your lifestyle — obviously nomadic types shouldn't bother with an investment piece — but there's also quality to consider. As Magnus Breitling, director of product management for Emeco chair company, puts it, "They say only rich people can afford to buy cheap stuff."
Be sure to read through to the end to get guidelines for a sofa test drive, so no matter what you have to spend, you'll get the best for the money.
Does anyone get excited about buying a couch? I can’t say the prospect awakens the impassioned consumer in me.
Maybe it’s a matter of optics. Take cars, for instance. Put a Porsche next to a Kia and it’s easy to spot the former’s superior design and engineering and understand (to some extent) its inflated price tag. But show me two sofas, at the low and high end of the market, and I can’t see much difference between the $700 couch at Bob’s Furniture Barn and the B&B Italia model that will set me back more than ten grand. Both look more or less like cushioned boxes. Barring gymnastic mistreatment, both will likely still be upright 20 years from now.
For years, I surveyed my living room from a Danish modern knockoff, long and low as a boat, which I picked up for $100 at a used furniture store. When one of the legs broke, I tucked some books underneath and favored the good side. It seemed like a practical solution. Couches take heaps of abuse (mine do, anyway): absorbing spills, collecting pet hair, doubling as beds for stray friends. In the fleet of living room furniture, they are family vehicles. Why spend a fortune on a Caravan?
There are those who would argue that a great piece of seating lasts a lifetime, but who wants to make that kind of commitment to a couch? Is it going to be passed down to successive generations? You never hear children fighting over who gets the sectional.
And yet, now that I need a new couch to replace the latest one I characteristically bought cheaply and treated poorly, I find myself rethinking my approach. It might be worthwhile after all to find out what goes into the design and construction of a high-end sofa as opposed to a budget model, and whether it’s worth investing the money.
Thinking of sofas as interchangeable is wrongheaded, apparently. Magnus Breitling, director of product management for the chair maker Emeco and formerly with Vitra, the Swiss furniture company, set me straight on the subject of luxury sofas.
“There’s a lot of intelligence that goes into the product, not just in construction but in sourcing,” Mr. Breitling said. “The effort and time is much higher than with a typical Macy’s or Ikea couch.”
But then again, so is the price. One reason manufacturers like Ligne Roset or Vitra charge significantly more is the involvement of a top designer, Mr. Breitling said. “You’re investing time and money in playing Ping-Pong with the designer because they have a vision.”
Do I really want to spend an extra $5,000 to underwrite someone’s creative process? I may fall victim to designer names with clothes, but not sofas.
For me, a more persuasive argument would be superior construction. Like many men, I am susceptible to the idea of things made by craftspeople using arcane tools and labor-intensive practices dating back to the Middle Ages. Kayel De Angelis of the New York upholsterer De Angelis, which was started more than 60 years ago by Mr. De Angelis’s grandfather Guido, is one such craftsman. To prove it, he began by tossing around woodworking terms I didn’t understand, like mortise and tenon.
In a budget couch, Mr. De Angelis said, “you could see plywood frames that are stapled together, with foam rubber inside. Frames made in that way — give it a year or a little longer, and the arm might be loose.”
The frame of a custom or high-end sofa by a manufacturer like Baker, he added, is usually a hardwood like ash or maple held together with glue and dowels or tongue-and-groove joints. “The joint is just as strong as, or stronger than, the wood itself,” he said. “And, then, the multiple layers of the upholstery won’t degrade the way foam rubber will.”
Mr. Breitling pointed to the cushions and outer layer as another point of difference. “The life cycle of the fabric or leather is much longer with an expensive couch,” he said. “Foam gets compressed and releases, and with time, the foam is wearing out.”
Annie Elliott, an interior designer in Washington with strong opinions on the subject, believes a five-figure couch isn’t just hype. “Unlike fashion, where you pay for style and name but not necessarily construction, with a sofa I think you are paying for quality,” Ms. Elliott said. “You’re getting things like feather and down cushions as opposed to foam.”
But you can buy a perfectly fine sofa, Ms. Elliott said, with a solid wood frame and feather-wrapped foam cushions, for as little as $1,500, if you find a deal. And she doesn’t see much difference in sofas priced in the midrange (say, between $2,000 and $4,000), other than shape or slight differences in fabric and cushion quality. “Now, when you get below $1,000, that’s where I think you have to be careful,” Ms. Elliott said, because manufacturers are probably cutting corners to keep the price down.
Although Ms. Elliott sees the value in investing in a top-notch sofa, she believes it’s a purchase that’s conditional on your life stage. “If you’re in that nomadic stage, moving every few years, sometimes without movers, you don’t want to invest in an expensive sofa,” she said. “It’s going to get trashed.”
What if you’re a bachelor settled into an apartment, but don’t want to buy an expensive sofa a future wife might hate?
Ms. Elliott scoffed at the notion. “I think it’s depressing to buy everything quasi-disposable,” she said, and wait for someone to “rescue you from mediocrity.”
Please, let’s keep the conversation to furniture.
One recent afternoon, with a better understanding of couch design and a willingness to spend more than $100, I visited a few Manhattan furniture stores.
At West Elm, I found a classic boxy design called the Henry that seemed to typify all that perplexes me about couch shopping. It looked remarkably similar to another sofa, the Reeded Base designed by Barbara Barry for Baker, which I saw online. Yet the Baker sofa, which was 90 inches long, started at around $8,100, while the base price for the comparable 86-inch version of the Henry was around $1,000.
Of course, there were differences. The Baker sofa comes in more than 1,000 fabric options and can be made in custom sizes, while the West Elm model is covered in something called “performance velvet” and comes in two colors (dove gray and mocha), though several other colors and fabrics can be special ordered. The frame of the Baker sofa is made of solid maple and has eight-way hand-tied springs, inserted after the coil springs are installed, to ensure stability, while the frame of the West Elm model is plywood.
The Baker sofa is more customizable and better constructed, and likely to be more comfortable as well, yet the West Elm version is very similar in design at a fraction of the cost. Do I mind sacrificing quality and the ability to customize for a significant savings? Would it be wise to invest in the Baker?
Or better yet, could I find a couch that offered a satisfying mix of the two? At Room & Board I found an 89-inch sofa called the Wells for about $2,400, while Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams offered a similar midcentury-inspired couch I liked, with a hardwood frame and eight-gauge steel serpentine springs that supposedly helped eliminate “squeakage,” for around $2,000, on sale. Both were nice. Both were big improvements on my current couch. But neither offered the Porsche-like sofa engineering that I’d been hearing about.
In our earlier conversation, Mr. Breitling had cited Poltrona Frau as a company that makes high-end sofas that last for decades, calling the leather “just incredible.” I paid a visit to the showroom in SoHo and caught sight of one with metal legs and an elegantly simple form, priced at $13,000.
“That’s the John-John,” the salesman told me, explaining that it was designed by Jean-Marie Massaud and named after John F. Kennedy Jr. I wasn’t crazy about the name, and the designer meant nothing to me, but my ears perked up when the salesman said that, like all Poltrona Frau sofas, it was “made by hand, by men working with simple tools.”
Calmly, Mr. Archetti began to pummel me with the sofa’s luxury features: the seat is solid beechwood; the feathers in the cushions are applied by hand; the full-grain leather is the highest quality and dyed through, so a surface scratch won’t reveal the white lining. And to achieve “maximum comfort,” Mr. Archetti said, the John-John went through several prototypes.
He wasn’t done yet: the foam is formed by hand. The cows that provide the leather are kindly treated. As he spoke, I began to wonder if more R&D had gone into the John-John than the Boeing Dreamliner.
When I hung up, I was overwhelmed, but still uncertain that a sofa was worth that kind of investment. Wouldn’t I be terrified to sit down on it?
After my conversation with Mr. Breitling, I had been more convinced, maybe because he spoke in automotive terms I could relate to. The Kia might be cheaper, he had pointed out, but in 20 to 30 years the Porsche is the car that will still be turning heads on the road.
Taking a swipe at our disposable culture, he added: “They say only rich people can afford to buy cheap stuff.”
The Sofa Test Drive
Tim Springer, the founder of Hero, Inc., which consults with companies on ergonomics and environmental design, said couch shoppers often make the mistake of simply plopping down, wiggling around for less than a minute and then making a snap decision.
“You wouldn’t hop in a car in a showroom for 15, 20 seconds, hop out and say, ‘I’ll take it,’ ” Mr. Springer said. “But you see that all the time with furniture.” He offered some tips for choosing a sofa that will not only hold up but be comfortable for years to come.
TAKE IT SLOW Watching a movie at home, you may log two hours on the couch. “So 10 minutes in a store is not much to ask,” Mr. Springer said. “If you’re comfortable the first minute, but three to five minutes in you go, ‘You know ...’ that’s probably an indicator that it might not be the best fit.”
CHECK UNDER THE HOOD Ask things like what the frame is made of, how it is held together and the type of cushion foam used. If you’re not satisfied, don’t be afraid to ask if you can lift up the couch. “If I’m going to spend top dollar,” Mr. Springer said, “I’m going to turn it over and look.”
DO THE FLEX TEST If you can torque the frame, it may be a sign of poor construction. “Some of it is physics,” Mr. Springer said. “If you have a very long sofa, you could probably flex it. But if the back or the arms move easily, that’s probably not a good sign.”
TREAT THE SHOWROOM LIKE YOUR LIVING ROOM “Don’t let the salesperson pressure you,” Mr. Springer said. “It’s your money after all. You have to get into your own head and say, ‘I’m here because I want to evaluate this.’ Be pretty critical, because that’s your chance to make a decision.”
By STEVEN KURUTZ, New York Times