Cheap and functional or expensive ... and functional?

Steven Kurutz / New York Times News Service /


Published Mar 19, 2013 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

NEW YORK — 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. Take cars, for instance. Put a Porsche next to a Kia and it's easy to spot the former's superior design and engineering and understand (to some extent) its inflated price tag. But show me two sofas, at the low and high end of the market, and I can't see much difference between the $700 couch at Bob's Furniture Barn and the B&B Italia model that will set me back more than 10 grand. 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 for $100 at a used-furniture store. When one of the legs broke, I tucked some books underneath and favored the good side. It seemed like a practical solution. 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. Why spend a fortune on a Caravan?

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? Is it going to be passed down to successive generations? You never hear children fighting over who gets the sectional.

And yet, now that I need a new couch to replace the latest one I characteristically bought cheaply and treated poorly, I find myself rethinking my approach. 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 chair-maker Emeco and formerly with Vitra, a Swiss furniture company, set me straight on the subject of luxury sofas.

“There's a lot of intelligence that goes into the product, not just in construction but in sourcing,” Breitling said. “The effort and time is much higher than with a typical Macy's or Ikea couch.”

But then again, so is the price. One reason manufacturers like Ligne Roset and Vitra 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 an extra $5,000 to underwrite someone's creative process? I might fall victim to designer names with clothes but not sofas.

For me, a more persuasive argument would be superior construction. Like many men, I am susceptible to the idea of things made by craftspeople using arcane tools and labor-intensive practices dating back to the Middle Ages. Kayel De Angelis of New York upholsterer De Angelis, which was started more than 60 years ago by De Angelis' grandfather Guido, 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 that are 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 by a manufacturer like Baker, 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.”

But assuming I'm willing to invest in a really well-made sofa, how do I know whether I am actually getting my $10,000 worth — or if I am paying $2,000 for materials and construction and $8,000 for marketing and cool Euro design?

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. “You're getting things like feather and down cushions as opposed to foam.”

But you can buy a perfectly fine sofa, Elliott said, with a solid wood frame and feather-wrapped foam cushions, for as little as $1,500 if you find a deal. And she doesn't see much difference in sofas priced in the midrange (say, between $2,000 and $4,000), other than shape or slight differences in fabric and cushion quality.

“Now, when you get below $1,000, that's where I think you have to be careful,” Elliott said, because manufacturers are probably cutting corners to keep the price down.

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. “It's going to get trashed.”

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.

In our earlier conversation, Breitling had cited Poltrona Frau as a company that makes high-end sofas that last for decades, calling the leather “just incredible.” I paid a visit to the showroom in SoHo and caught sight of one with metal legs and an elegantly simple form, priced at $13,000.

“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. I wasn't crazy about the name, and the designer meant nothing to me, but my ears perked up when the salesman said that, like all Poltrona Frau sofas, it was “made by hand, by men working with simple tools.”

I wanted to learn more. I called Roberto Archetti, the company's brand director in Italy, and asked skeptically what goes into a $13,000 sofa. Gold bricks?

Calmly, 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. And to achieve “maximum comfort,” Archetti said, the John-John went through several prototypes.

He wasn't done yet: The foam is formed by hand. The cows that provide the leather are kindly treated. As he spoke, I began to wonder whether more & had gone into the John-John than the Boeing Dreamliner.

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.”