The Simple Secret to Upholstered Furniture


I’ve been working on a new design job, and it’s got me thinking through upholstery: the good, the bad, and the ugly (and yes, there is A LOT of ugly out there). Most people consider the general shape of a piece of upholstered furniture, then spend time obsessing over fabric and color, but there’s so much more to consider.

Your home is your castle, and everything in it should work to make your life easier, more comfortable, and more beautiful. Notice there’s an “and” in there! It’s a hard lesson to learn, but beauty isn’t enough for something you’ve got to sit down on.

I was on a buying trip to Designers Gallery a week or so ago and I made sure to take the time to sit down and relax in each piece I was considering. I saw the most beautiful leather chair and was thinking I had to have it (for me, not my client), but when I sat in it, I slid straight out. I’m not sure if I was just too short for it or if the leather was too slippery, but either way this was not the chair for me.

I truly don’t think I’ve ever ordered a chair or sofa without spending some time in it. A lot of people are obsessed with shopping online and ordering from catalogs, but that’s no way to ensure that it is right for you personally. That means more than whether it clashes with the carpet.

  • Consider the room. What are you going to be doing while you sit in the chair, and what obvious use will it have for guests? Are you sitting comfortably having a drink with a group of girlfriends, or are you upright playing canasta? Are you designing for a feet-up novel-reading experience, or for a bunch of guys to watch football on the bigscreen? It’s shocking how many people design a formal sitting room, even when they have no plans for any formal sitting.
  • Consider the shape. Think carefully about depth, arm height, and cushion construction. Depth is key to comfort, but it’s something that is very personal since we’re all different heights, weights, and proportions — which makes hanging out on the sofa tough for some couples. Arm height is extremely important, and should vary depending on whether you’re going to be having your morning coffee, working on a laptop, or taking a nap. I always prefer lower arms on sectionals so that I can prop up a pillow and lie down comfortably. (Sammy and Lily are also very fond of this feature.) Cushion construction is also important for reasons of comfort and structure; you may love the feel of full-down cushions, but remember you’ll have to fluff every time you get up.
  • Consider your lifestyle. If you have three teenage sons, don’t go with a dainty chair or easily damaged linen fabrics. If you’re getting a sofa to lounge on, don’t pick something with high arms and a straight back. If you’re a napper, don’t get something shorter than you are (and don’t lie to yourself about whether or not you’re a napper).


Upholstery is expensive, and you’re not going to change it out very often unless the chiropractor bills start piling up. So put down the catalog, drive to the furniture store, and sit for a while.

What’s your favorite piece of upholstered furniture? Better yet, tell us about one you absolutely hated.


Mary Spalding is a Nashville based interior designer with over 30 years of experience. She has overseen countless home revitalizations, renovations, and restorations. She can be reached with your projects and ideas at

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  • Mary,
    I could not agree with you more!! I would not order upholstery without sitting in it. Too risky.