A Designer Guide to Buying Upholstery

Upholstery is perhaps the most hard working furniture in the home, providing enduring comfort and helping to establish the personality of the room through its stylings and fabric.  In my years in design, I have discovered that clients particularly appreciate my guidance when it comes to these important home elements.  No one wants to regret this choice either on delivery day because the fabric doesn't compliment the room or a couple of years down the line because the sofa hasn't held up to wear and tear.  Here are some insights on how to make satisfying upholstery buying decisions. 


First Comes First

Designers plan out the color palette of a room before any purchases are made. We generally start with the largest pattern and color influencers first. This might be a graphic rug or wallpaper; sometimes it might be drapery fabric, if the room has a lot of windows and a patterned fabric is desired. Selecting the largest or most impactful pattern first establishes the color palette for the room. Because I typically prefer subtly in window treatments, the typical order of decisions in my process is rug first, then upholstery, window treatments and pillows.  Only after the rugs and fabrics have been chosen do I selected the wall color.  This is because textile choices are limited compared to paint color, which can be matched and manipulated with infinite outcomes.

Always bring measurements of your room when selecting furniture. Having a sketch of the layout that you desire will make the process much more focused. Make sure that you document doorways or access points that might limit access for larger items. 

What Lies Beneath

For the homeowner who wants lasting performance from their upholstery, it's important to know what's going on under the wrappings of a sofa.  A well-built piece of upholstery should be constructed of solid, kiln-dried hardwood, with dowelled joinery and additional corner blocks to reinforce the frame.  In the best case scenario, the springing is constructed with eight way hand-tied coils, which provide the most even weight distribution and long-lasting comfort. The alternate system, called sinuous coil construction, is commonly used by even some better furniture makers, but not all sinuous coil systems are alike. Look for thick gauge steel and rows of springs packed tightly from left to right; generous gaps between each sinuous coil mean less support and are a sign that the maker is cutting corners.  The clips that affix these coils to the frame should be screwed into the wood and not stapled so that they remain firmly in place.


Paul talks furniture construction with his team at our North Carolina maker.


Functional Details

The stylings of a piece can influence how well the furniture will perform.  Upholstery with fixed seat cushions and attached back cushions can seem appealing because they stay in place and seem more tailored. However, the ability to flip cushions over is what helps distribute wear and tear on the fabric and cushioning. By flipping-and-fluffing sofa cushions, the fabric will last doubly long and the inserts will retain their shape better.

Tufting is a traditional detail that looks great on classic and modern upholstery, but it does inherently stiffen the feel of the seat and back.  Use tufting for accent chairs and ottomans, but when fluffy seating is desired, leave the buttons off.


Tufting on upholstery is gorgeous, but you must know when it is best to apply it (or when to leave it off).



As a designer, I am as likely to break rules as to follow them, which comes easy to be me because I am trained to see the big picture.  All the same, there are some general rules of thumb for selecting fabric that I think are invaluable.  The largest piece of upholstery in the room should typically be an interesting texture with no discernible pattern.  Save the fun, expressive graphics for accent pieces and pillows, but make sure that a fabric with a large repeat will show sufficiently in smaller applications. 

Your fabric must be well suited to the application. Stripes are not ideal for sectionals because on the corner cushions, the pattern will run perpendicular to one of its neighboring cushions.  Similarly, rectilinear patterns like stripes and plaids become chaotic on tufted pieces, as the folds of the fabric distort the pattern.    

Avoid details like colored contrast welts on large pieces because a work horse piece like a well made sofa will often outlast your color preferences. Stick to classic neutrals or desaturated hues for the biggest pieces. (Unless you are fearless, in which case, commit fully to a color choice that you know you will love a long time, like a bold red sectional. It isn't for everyone but I love to encourage expressive and joyful choices in home design.)

A pair of boldly floral chairs add personality to the living room in our Tudor Creek project. Notice, too, a tufted ottoman, and in an appropriately scaled texture for the application.

A pair of boldly floral chairs add personality to the living room in our Tudor Creek project. Notice, too, a tufted ottoman, and in an appropriately scaled texture for the application.



I encourage all furniture buyers to buy from American manufacturers. Not only is it a great way to support the national job market, but there are standards in place that require furniture makers to responsibly source wood used in their pieces. Sustainability is important to me personally and should be an important part of the decision making process for anyone who thinks that environmental stewardship is part of being a good citizen.

A factory snapshot from our North Carolina maker.

A factory snapshot from our North Carolina maker.

For the discerning buyer, the most successful furniture purchasing does not happen online.  It's important to be able to sit in upholstery to know whether or not it suits your own frame. The process of selecting fabrics with a skilled sales and design professional can be fun and educational. 

By supporting a furniture provider in your area, much more of the revenue stays in the community, which is a benefit to everyone.  However, your local retailer should be fully versed in their upholstery lines and able to help make custom choices that will personalize your furnishings to your home.  As your advocate, a salesperson can provide research as needed to make sure that you wind up with unique style and high performance.  

Enjoy the Journey

Buying furniture is daunting but also exciting, as new upholstery will change the look and functionality of your space.  It will also likely set in motion changes that will alter the wall color and floor covering. With the right preplanning and attention to detail, the results can be a stunning transformation. Change is good and educated decisions make the journey more surefooted. I hope my designer insights make your next purchase a satisfying experience.

Paul Miller