Prior to the 17th century, seating in European homes was limited to trunks, benches, and beds. Then craftsman of the day re-imagined them and sofas in dozens of styles were invented. It is believed that the earliest surviving sofa was made in England in the 1690s, referred to as “double Windsor chairs without a division.”
But, it was the French who dominated production. The low-backed style called a canapé was first built in 1686 and is the earliest style we have record of. Soon after that, a Parisian craftsman called himself “a specialist in sophas.” Many styles thereafter were called a sofa or sopha from the Arabic for cushion.
Since then, styles have evolved from the simple low back to elaborately carved frames and ornate fabrics to sleek, streamlined and industrial design.
Modular design, better known as the sectional sofa, rose to fame in the mid-20th century in the era of Mid-Century Modern with the aesthetics of Charles and Ray Eames and George Nelson, but there is a record of two and three sectional sofas dating back to the early 1800s in Fredericksburg, VA.
a images – settee, england, 1690-1700.
Today, sectionals are available in every style, from streamlined mid-century as mentioned earlier to the very lush and glamorous, as shown in the sofa below from Stanford Furniture.
“The sofa set off a design revolution,
being the first piece of furniture that featured
upholstery and padding on all sides.”
– Joan DeJean, The Age of Comfort
Trustee Professor of Romance Languages in the School of Arts and Sciences
The style is the first place one will start in their search but from there, many things should be considered when purchasing your sofa. You will want to look at the frame construction, the padding and filling materials, the fabrics and cleaning options and of course, the comfort and if needed, functionality.
The strength of the frame depends on the largest pieces of solid wood. High-end materials included oak and maple kindred hardwood and are constructed with screws, glue and wood blocks or metal corner braces. They will last a lifetime and can be reupholstered many times.
A medium priced would use wood such as pine (which is softer than oak and maple) and incorporates plywood parts for added strength. Your lower end pieces would use pine entirely with extra bracing. Because of the soft wood, these sofas may be too soft to reupholster. Problems with removing and adding new staples.
For high quality, the traditional 8-way hand-tied construction is the way to go. This system prevents any give in the frame. The coils are built into the bottom of the frame from front to back, side to side and diagonally, eight times by hand. A true 8-way system will allow you to feel the bottom of the spring. These are the longest lasting type of spring which means your furniture will remain comfortable to lounge on for a longer period of time. The higher end sofas will be solid wood framed, 8 way hand tied springs and the fill or cushions will have some amount is down fill.
Most manufacturers offer renderings of cut-away drawings of their frame construction, I would advise you have a look.
The padding underneath is crucial to the fabric. One will wear out faster with a lack of padding between the fabric cover and the frame. High-end sofas have three or four layers and vary from urethane foam, rubber, cotton felt, polyester fibers and muslin layers. Again, see if the maker can provide a picture of the construction.
When you pat the back and sides of the sofa, it should not feel hollow but well-padded.
The longest lasting are spring-down, which are layers of feathers surrounding a coil spring, much like a mattress. They are very firm. The next best are foam and down. These are a firm foam pad surrounded by down feathers. They are very ‘cushy’ in their feel and give nicely. These are the kind that give you a soft curve across the top, called the “crown.” They maintain their shape unlike their lesser versions made of foam and dacron. Of course, there are many other variations available in your high-end choices.
In the back cushions on a sofa, You will want to look inside, you don’t want to see loose filling without an inner cover. An inner moline cover and some stitching dividing the filling into compartments is good to prevent shifting. Lower-end will not have the muslin and beware of the yellow foam as it looses its comfort quickly.
I recommend you look for a tight weave that holds its shape when being pulled diagonally. High synthetic content (polyester or acrylic) fabrics are good for strength and stain resistance. Cotton, rayon, and linens are breathable and better for comfort. Many will combine them into a two-thirds synthetic and one-third natural fiber.
Of course, all natural fibers are durable and comfortable and are best suited for the home. They are the best for slipcovers as well as they can be washed at home. A stain-repelling treatment will make a big difference as well.
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And of course, there is the comfort and functionality of the sofa. Will it be used mostly for sitting and entertaining or for afternoon naps and lounging. The shorter lengths are good for seated support and the longer, more cushioned sofas will be better for those long, sports-filled afternoons.
The Grand Deluxe Excess Lounge from Blueprint is beautiful and very functional. Not only are the sides good for end table use but this one folds out to a queen-sized sofa bed.
I hope this little tutorial on sofas provides some insight on construction and associated price point so when you go out shopping for your next one, you have information you can take with you to assess what will work best and more importantly why. There are many beautiful sofas in all sizes and shapes to fit your needs, budget and personal style.
Happy sofa hunting.