Buying a sofa requires a strong knowledge of self, says Amy Rutherford, owner of furniture and home store Red Barn Mercantile in Alexandria, Va. "The first question I ask people is 'Where is it going?' Then, 'How do you use your space? What's your lifestyle like?' " If you like entertaining, you might go for a traditional shape, with rolled arms. If you live more casually, you might go with something slipcovered. Because sofas are such big purchases, they also require a lot of research and measurements. The width of the sofa needs to fit up or down any stairs, through the doorway and in the room itself. The height of the seat should be about the same as other seats in the room. And don't forget the depth, says D.C. interior designer Byron Risdon. "Is it going to cut off a door or be in the way? Measure, measure, measure." Beyond size, there's fabric to choose, different cushion materials, different shapes — it can all get a little overwhelming.
So we asked five designers and shop owners to give us the skinny on their favorite sofas — ones they've touched, sat on or sourced for real homes. It's up to you and your tape measure to decide the right fit for you.
Kid- and pet-friendly
• "I have this sofa . . . and I love it because it is so cozy," Rutherford says of Cisco Brothers' Seda, which her shop sells ($2,997, redbarnmercantile.com). "I like putting up my feet and snuggling in the corner and reading a book or watching TV with my kids." She recommends it for a living room or family room and suggests families choose a white denim slipcover for it: "You pull it off, throw it in the wash, bleach it and throw it back on."
• When you have kids or pets, it's important to choose your fabric wisely. Risdon favors furniture makers that understand this and points to Room & Board's 88-inch Dean sofa, which comes in indoor-outdoor Sunbrella fabric and performance fabric options ($1,799-$2,499, roomandboard.com). (If you have cats, pay attention to fabric weave, too. Large weaves don't play well with claws.) No matter what you choose, get a protective treatment, Risdon says, by a professional company such as Fiber-Seal.
For small spaces
• If you can't sit on a sofa before you buy it, designer and artist Kristin Try of Alexandria's Gingham & Grosgrain says you need to make sure the company has great customer service. She chose the Rose apartment sofa from Interior Define, a company she likes, for a client with a small space and traditional taste ($1,200, interiordefine.com.) The English roll arm style makes it warmer than most of the urban-modern small-space sofas out there.
• For a recent grad or a working 20-something, interior designer Maureen Baker, based in New York with Décor Aid, likes the Flatiron gray apartment sofa, with its single cushion and cool metal legs ($799, cb2.com). It also has slim arms, something Risdon says will make it appear less obtrusive: "If you live in a smaller apartment, having a sofa with slimmer lines makes it appear as if it's taking up less space."
For large spaces
• If you have a big room to fill, by all means, go with a big sofa! ("My biggest pet peeve is little tiny furniture in a big space," Rutherford says.) The sizable Dryden two-piece sectional is for a "savvy buyer," Baker says — "someone who is not ready to go custom, but has graduated from the Craigslist arena" ($2,699, crateandbarrel.com). The sofa has a high-quality fill and the promise of a long life.
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• If you can't decide between modern and traditional, land in the middle with a transitional silhouette, as with the Clifton sectional (from $5,140, mgbwhome.com). "It could fit in a more traditional home with the right coffee table and chairs, but it's pretty contemporary and modern," Baker says. "People are always looking for nice clean pieces, especially in upholstery, because it will be in style that much longer."
• Risdon looks to Joybird for apartment-friendly sofas that don't require a loan from Mom and Dad. The Eliot sleeper sofa comes in seven in-stock and 69 custom fabrics, plus leather options ($2,349-$6,099, joybird.com). The company has a return policy of 365 days, something Risdon notes is rare when it comes to buying large pieces of furniture but nice to have if you make a mistake with sizing. The company also offers a lifetime warranty and free delivery.
• Try says the York guest sleeper sofa "is the most comfortable sofa I've ever slept on." The comfort comes from a regular mattress plus an inflatable top layer ($1,799-$1,899, roomandboard.com). "The sofa is really well made and looks good, too," she adds. One of her clients has the sectional version in a family room, and it's held up well to abuse from toddlers and a dog.
• Risdon picked out Article's Cirrus as the perfect sofa for city folk. It comes in green, teal and gray velvet, which is a fun fabric for a loft, if not one with pets ($999, article.com). "If you don't have kids or pets, then you're not worried about what's going to happen to a sofa. . . . You go with what makes you feel good," Risdon says. Delivery is a flat fee of $49.
• For an affordable sofa you don't have to assemble, interior designer Lindsay Boudreaux of Alexandria's Shotgun Double design studio likes the Eddy from West Elm because of its clean lines and wooden legs ($799-$1,399, westelm.com). If $800 is still more than you have budgeted for a sofa, Baker suggests searching Craigslist and considering cost vs. benefit. Ask sellers about the size and age of a sofa, and add in the cost of renting a truck, if necessary.
• Baker Furniture's Madison sofa "is an heirloom piece," Boudreaux says (from $10,380, bakerfurniture.com). "It is handcrafted in the U.S. with first-rate materials." The tuxedo-style sofa has been in Baker's line for decades and holds up against trends. As Rutherford says: "You get what you pay for when you're buying a sofa. If you want to get eight-way, hand-tied (springs in your) sofa, you will pay for it, but you will have it for ages. It will be heirloom quality, and you will be passing it down to your children and they will want it."
• "That is an sawesome sofa," Baker says of the Cloud track-arm leather two-seat-cushion sofa ($4,950-$9,250, restorationhardware.com). "If you get a chance to go over to Restoration Hardware and sit on him, you'll never get up again." The double-doweled frame is built of kiln-dried hardwood, while the sofa cushions are made of luxurious goose feathers wrapped in down.