Buying a new sofa is a major investment, and I don’t just mean financially. The sofa is the centerpiece of your living room, and one of the most important pieces for defining the style of the space. And since most people keep their sofas for many years, the one you choose now might very well be with you for quite a long time. So while price and comfort should be major considerations, it’s worth taking some time to think about your sense of style, too, and what you want your living room to look like in the coming years.
Traditional sofas are probably the first thing that come to mind when you think “sofa.” They have thick cushiony seats and backs, padded arms, and generally sit pretty low to or even flat on the ground. The most common ones are simple are often more for comfort than for looks, while others sport a more classic style, with features like button tufting, shaped arms or backs, or tooled wood legs or feet. Traditional sofas also tend to be the heftiest, with a strong rectangular shape, which makes them great for a large living room. Simpler sofas have a more casual feel, but the more detail you add, the more formal and finished they’ll make your living room look.
The dressiest traditional sofas are heavily influenced by antique designs. But they don’t necessarily have to be reserved for strongly period-inspired spaces. In fact, antique designs made with simple, neutral-colored fabrics and natural or weathered wood accents have a gorgeous, homey quality that’s become particularly popular in recent years. Antique-inspired features make these sofas feel elegant and sophisticated; using humble materials makes them feel more like hand-me-down family heirlooms than museum quality pieces. This hybrid traditional style is great for dressing up a simple farmhouse or cottage style living room. Sofas with more French-inspired details (particularly antique tooled legs) are great for creating a picture-perfect French country cottage look.
Where traditional sofas are all plush surfaces and soft curves, contemporary sofas are sleek, minimalist, and generally pretty square, with simple lines and few embellishments. They also tend to be quite a bit leaner than more traditional designs. Where traditional sofas sit very close to the floor, contemporary designs are much more likely to be raised up on simple legs. This slimmer profile makes them ideal for smaller spaces, since they don’t feel quite so big or heavy. Traditional sofas tend to stick pretty closely to a basic three-seat layout, but contemporary sofas can have more creative configurations. You’ll find designs that incorporate chaises, adjustable parts or arms, or even fully convertible designs that make them more functional in small homes.
“Retro” sofas are almost always based on mid-century designs, a style that boomed from 1933-1965 and that has had a huge influence on architecture and furniture designs ever since. Now, mid-century modern sofas have a look that’s somewhere between vintage and futuristic; as with contemporary sofas, they feature a lot of simple lines, but instead of sticking with basic squares, mid-century furniture incorporates lots of unique and unusual geometric shapes. These sofas usually have tapered wood legs set at an angle and don’t shy away from including curvy shapes or asymmetry for style. In general, they have a bit more flair than contemporary sofas, which can feel a bit boxy. For a more retro feel, look for upholstery in a distinctive color like rust red, chartreuse, pea green, or orange; for a more modern feel, try something a little brighter, like true red, teal, yellow, or lime green.
Statement sofas can fall into any of these categories, but are bigger, bolder, and more distinct. They’re meant to catch the eye and be a vivid part of the décor. For a traditional or French Country sofa, that might mean a distinctive shape (like a fainting sofa), a colorful, antique-inspired fabric, or lots of highly detailed woodwork. For a retro or contemporary sofa, it might mean funky, unusual shapes and bright, colorful upholstery. You can even mix and match materials and styles to create something even more eye-catching. These bold sofas work especially well with an eclectic design, because they stand out rather than blending in. The biggest drawback is that the coolest looking sofas tend to be the least comfortable to actually sit on. Many are also on the smaller side, and are more for looks than kicking back and watching a movie.
Style vs. Comfort
Regardless of your style, it’s important to consider how you’ll be using the sofa. Will it be mostly for show or mostly for comfort? In any of these styles, it’s entirely possible to find a sofa that’s comfortable enough for everyday use. But keep in mind that comfort almost always comes at the cost of showiness. The exception? Choosing upholstery in a distinctive color will quickly elevate even a so-so looking comfy couch. While it can be worthwhile to sacrifice a high level of detail for some cushions you actually enjoy sitting on, that doesn’t mean you have to settle for a bland looking sofa.
It’s common for designers to mix design elements from traditional, contemporary, and midcentury sofa designs to create more distinctive looks. But knowing what you like and being able to identify these style elements can make all the difference in finding a sofa you’ll love.