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Crash course: Sofa shopping

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January 14, 2001

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BY MIKE KNIGHT

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From presidents to fake breasts to avoiding the long arm of the law, when Americans elect to do something, we’re serious about it. And so it must be when we buy a new sofa. A couch is the leader of your living room, the kingpin of the efficient congress of style and relaxation at home. Don’t believe it? Try impeaching your sofa early in its term and watch the side chairs and accessories scurry into splinter groups, replete with their own irreconcilable agendas. Here, then, are the issues you must consider when looking for a piece of furniture that will rule, uncontested. How long should I expect a quality sofa to last? Leaky kids, clawing cats, a preponderance of use compared to other seating surfaces in your home – all play a role in breaking down even the soundest of selections. Jackie Hirschhaut, vice president of the American Furniture Manufacturers Association in High Point, N.C., says entry-level sofas – i.e., those in the $399 to $699 range – should last about five years. Moderate pieces, which means those costing up to $1,000, should do better. Higher end pieces, at $1,200 and up, make re-upholstering a viable option.

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“Kiln-dried hardwood frames” and “eight-way, hand-tied springs” are the rack and pinion steering of the divan world. These key features construct a rigid frame and a configuration of springs designed to give your posterior a superior ride. Because this type of construction requires more hand labor, expect to pay $1,200 plus. Other features, like doubledoweled joints and corner blocking, also increase the sofa’s stability (and, sadly, its cost). Is a sofa from Pottery Barn as good as one in a high-end store? A sofa from a one-stop lifestyle store can, Hirschhaut says, be as good as those from high-end retailers. But what separates the davenport from the

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divan transcends kiln-dried this and hand-tied that. The difference may reside in goose-down cushions, imported fabrics, and custom-built length or height. Truly high-end pieces may be historic reproductions of heirloom quality, upholstered in fabric that’s frankly too fine for the J. Crew-covered bottoms of most Crate and Barrel and Home Restoration patrons. I’ve got Architectural Digest taste on a Reader’s Digest budget – what to do? This is a credit problem waiting to happen, isn’t it? To get the A.D. goods, Hirschhaut says you’ll have to pop for a minimum of $1,000. Can’t I save a bundle by ordering directly from North Carolina, where most furniture is manufactured? “It’s not a sure guarantee that if you come to N.C., you can buy it cheaper,” Hirschhaut says. After all, local retailers are likely paying what North Carolina retailers are; thus any real savings come only from volume buying. Still, in the spirit of scientific inquiry, try this: Take a notepad with you to the store. Send the salesperson off on a timeconsuming errand: “Could you find my husband a couple of aspirin? Big purchases give him a headache.” Then jot down the manufacturer, style number, and fabric number of your favorite sofa (the tag may be under the cushions), so you can call a North Carolina retailer for an apples-toapples quote. Remember to add in delivery (charged by weight, and likely at least $100 or more). I’m too embarrassed to lie down in front of a bunch of strangers and test out a sofa. Certainly, it’s easier to do when there’s a keg of beer in the room and loud music blaring in your ear. But now is not the time to let modesty be your virtue. Your mission is to bump, flop and bounce on your couch candidates as much as possible. “Bump up against the sofa and make sure the joints don’t give,” Hirschhaut instructs. “Wiggle around on a cushion to make sure the filling doesn’t separate; then bounce up and down to make sure there’s plenty of support.” Don’t be intimidated by the sales staff – if the sofa is of good quality, they shouldn’t be afraid to have it road-tested. I have a leaky dog, a 3-year-old, and a slob for a mate. What’s the best fabric for me? Well, straitjackets come in cool comfortable cotton these days. But if you insist on giving the terrible trinity run of the house, Hirschhaut says washable velvets and wovens are good bets against stains, hair and other debris. And for added protection, she suggests fortifying with fabric guard – a repellent, to be sure, but not an impenetrable force field. Given your cast of characters, maybe the $399, cheap and cheerful sofa makes more sense than the $5,000 custom-made model. But if you’re prepared to spring for a little more, cover it in leather, which is more resistant to Fido – and Junior’s excesses.

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