Good couch, bad couch

FURNITURE

Good couch, bad couch

Steven Kurutz goes couch-hunting and comes away overwhelmed by the options on offer.

Does anyone get excited about buying a couch? I can’t say the prospect awakens the impassioned consumer in me. I’ve overreached on chairs, bedding and Scandinavian flatware that sits in my cupboard like a melancholy reminder of all the dinner parties I don’t have, but never have I been tempted to drop big money on a couch. When I’m invited to other people’s homes, their sofas don’t stoke envy. More often, my response is to plop down, scatter a few crumbs and move on.Maybe it’s a matter of optics.

Show me two sofas, at the low and high end of the market, and I can’t see much difference. Both look more or less like cushioned boxes. Barring gymnastic mistreatment, both will likely still be upright 20 years from now.

For years, I surveyed my living room from a Danish modern knockoff, long and low as a boat, which I picked up at a used-furniture store. When one of the legs broke, I tucked some books underneath and favoured the good side.

Couches take heaps of abuse (mine do, anyway): absorbing spills, collecting pet hair, doubling as beds for stray friends. In the fleet of living-room furniture, they are family vehicles. There are those who would argue that a great piece of seating lasts a lifetime, but who wants to make that kind of commitment to a couch?
It might be worthwhile after all to find out what goes into the design and construction of a high-end sofa as opposed to a budget model, and whether it’s worth investing the money.

Thinking of sofas as interchangeable is wrongheaded, apparently. Magnus Breitling, director of product management for a chair-maker set me straight on the subject of luxury sofas. One reason manufacturers charge significantly more is the involvement of a top designer, Breitling said.

“You’re investing time and money in playing Ping-Pong with the designer because they have a vision.” Do I really want to spend extra to underwrite someone’s creative process?

Superior construction

For me, a more persuasive argument would be superior construction. I am susceptible to the idea of things made by craftspeople using arcane tools and labour-intensive practices dating back to the Middle Ages. Kayel De Angelis of an upholsterer firm, which was started more than 60 years ago, is one such craftsman. To prove it, he began by tossing around woodworking terms I didn’t understand, such as mortise and tenon. In a budget couch, De Angelis said, “you could see plywood frames stapled together with foam rubber inside. Frames made in that way — give it a year or a little longer, and the arm might be loose.”

The frame of a custom or high-end sofa, he added, is usually a hardwood like ash or maple held together with glue and dowels or tongue-and-groove joints. “The joint is just as strong as, or stronger than, the wood itself,” he said. “And, then, the multiple layers of the upholstery won’t degrade the way foam rubber will.” Breitling pointed to the cushions and outer layer as another point of difference. “The life cycle of the fabric or leather is much longer with an expensive couch,” he said. “Foam gets compressed and releases, and with time, the foam is wearing out.”

Annie Elliott, an interior designer in Washington with strong opinions on the subject, believes a five-figure couch isn’t just hype. “Unlike fashion, where you pay for style and name but not necessarily construction, with a sofa I think you are paying for quality,” Elliott said. Although Elliott sees the value in investing in a top-notch sofa, she believes it’s a purchase that’s conditional on your life stage. “If you’re in that nomadic stage, moving every few years, sometimes without movers, you don’t want to invest in an expensive sofa,” she said.

“What if you’re a bachelor settled into an apartment but don’t want to buy an expensive sofa a future wife might hate? Elliott scoffed at the notion. “I think it’s depressing to buy everything quasi-disposable,” she said, and wait for someone to “rescue you from mediocrity.” Please, let’s keep the conversation to furniture.

How about a Baker?

On a recent afternoon, with a better understanding of couch design, I visited a few Manhattan furniture stores. I found a classic boxy design that seemed to typify all that perplexes me about couch shopping. It looked remarkably similar to a Baker sofa which I saw online.

The Baker sofa comes in more than 1,000 fabric options and can be made in custom sizes, while the other model is covered in something called “performance velvet” and comes in two colours (dove grey and mocha), although several other colours and fabrics can be special ordered. The Baker sofa is more customisable and better constructed, and likely to be more comfortable as well, yet the other version is very similar in design at a fraction of the cost. Do I mind sacrificing quality and the ability to customise for a significant savings? Would it be wise to invest in the Baker? Or better yet, could I find a couch that offered a satisfying mix of the two?

In our earlier conversation, Breitling had cited a company that makes high-end sofas that last for decades. I paid a visit to their showroom and caught sight of one with metal legs and an elegantly simple form. “That’s the John-John,” the salesman told me, explaining that it was designed by Jean-Marie Massaud and named after John F Kennedy Jr. My ears perked up when the salesman said that it was “made by hand, by men working with simple tools.” I called Roberto Archetti, the company’s brand director in Italy, and asked what goes into the sofa.

Gold bricks? Archetti began to pummel me with the sofa’s luxury features: the seat is solid beechwood; the feathers in the cushions are applied by hand; the full-grain leather is the highest quality and dyed through, so a surface scratch won’t reveal the white lining.

When I hung up, I was overwhelmed but still uncertain that a sofa was worth that kind of investment. Wouldn’t I be terrified to sit down on it?

After my conversation with Breitling, I had been more convinced, maybe because he spoke in automotive terms I could relate to. The Kia might be cheaper, he had pointed out, but in 20 to 30 years the Porsche is the car that will still be turning heads on the road. Taking a swipe at our disposable culture, he added: “They say only rich people can afford to buy cheap stuff.”

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