Design Guide: Shopping For The Perfect Sofa

We started looking for a new sofa last year and I couldn’t find I liked.   We decided to put our sofa shopping on hold so it gives me the perfect opportunity to share sofa styling tips to help you (and me) find the ideal sofa.


The first and most critical step in picking a sofa is to determine the style of sofa that fits your needs and function as well as your design aesthetic.



There are a variety of back, arm and seat styles to consider…


  • Loose cushion – the cushions are separate from the back of the sofa (and in some cases may be semi-attached). Cushions create a more casual look and can be easily removed for cleaning.  Two possible downsides of loose cushions are a potential lack of support over time and the cushions can be high-maintenance because they require more fluffing and re-positioning.
  • Tight Back – the back is all upholstery, with no cushions.  This is one style of sofa I’m looking at because it’s a transitional look that can be styled up or down with pillows.  If you like a clean line sofa, this might be a good option for you.
  • Pillow Back– the back consist of several large, unattached pillows instead of a cushion and this sofa style provides for the most casual look and feel. Pillow back sofas are used a lot in cottage style rooms where an informal, cozy look is desired. This is definitely a high-maintenance sofa style which requires constant plumping and re-positioning of the back pillows.

  • Channel Back–this sofa style has a  tight back, made up of several panels and provide a clean, polished look.  Channel backs can work in both formal and transitional styled rooms and you can have fun accessorizing with accent pillows. This is the other style of sofa I’m considering.
  • Curved  Back– instead of the back and arms being separate pieces, the back curves around to form a solid line with the arms.  This sofa style requires the perfect setting and furniture arrangement but is ideal when you want to create more intimate sitting area.
  • Camelback  – the silhouette of the back is in an arch shape and tends to be a more formal although with the right mix it can work with other decor styles.

Each of these back styles sits differently so make sure to test drive any sofa you are considering.  Lounge on the as you would as home to make sure the back gives you the comfort and support you and your family want. Keep in mind how accent pillows work with the different styles because a layer of pillows can change both the look and feel.


Once you have narrowed in on a back style, you’ll want to look at the different seat styles available.

  • Tight – this style of seat is streamlined, tailored and forms a single tight cushion across the length of the couch.  Many modern style sofas today have a tight seat but you can also find formal designs with the seat style.  A benefit of a tight seat is that several people can sit comfortably without any separation between them.
  • Bench – this is one of my favorites, a single cushion or bench seat has a clean, crisp appearance. When test driving sofas, make sure you look at this style with people sitting on the cushion.  The cushion may lift up slightly when a single person sits on one end.
  • Cushion –this style features two or three loose cushions that are not attached to the base. Cushions can be square or rectangular to fit inside the frame of the couch or T-shaped with the outer cushions wrapping around the arm.  This is one of the most popular sofa styles on the market.


Back √ Seat √…now it’s time to look at arm styles.  There are three classic designs and variations of these designs that you’ll find on most sofas.

  • Rolled – rolled arms are a classic design and provide a graceful detail on a couch.  The arm gently curve out and often times sit lower which provide a comfortable place for the arm to rest.
  • Square –a more contemporary style,  tailored arms are boxy and give couches a more rigid, structured appearance. This style works great in masculine spaces and in smaller rooms where space is limited.
  • Chesterfield sofas have made a major comeback and are very popular in the design world.  This style is very traditional with a regal appearance.   The tufted back is visually appealing although I’ve found that most people either love them or hate them.


When it comes to leg styles on a sofa you have two basic options–expose them or cover them up.

  • Exposed legs – most of the couches you see on the market have exposed legs. There are different leg styles you can choose from to get the look you want–straight lines, turned legs, legs with castors or block style legs with little to no detail.
  • Skirted – for a more traditional look, a skirted couch might be your best option.  Skirts can be simple and classic or trim can be added to give it more detail.  And you can select a style with pleats or a flat panel skirt.


With all of these details in mind you can now find the perfect couch to fit your decor and lifestyle.


A couple of other design details to keep in mind…

  1. Think about the furniture that will surround your sofa–the coffee table and side tables may influence the style you choose.  You want the scale of your sofa to work with the other elements in the room.
  2. Measure the space where your sofa will sit and the doors that it will have to fit through to get into your house.  If you have to move your couch up or down stairs, make sure it will navigate those areas with ease.
  3. Evaluate your fabric options against how your family uses the furniture in your home. You want fabric that holds up well and always opt for a fabric protector to get the most out of your fabric.

Happy shopping!

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  1. A very thorough post Shelly…the options, styles, sizes, fabrics can be daunting. We just did the process on-line for a futon…I bet I looked at over 1000….crazy. Wish I had seen your post first. 🙂

  2. How timely. Thanks Shelly. I’m working with a client now. We have decided to go custom (tight back, square arms and exposed legs).

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