A sofa is one of life's major purchases in far more than one sense. It dominates space both physically and visually, it gives away endless clues about its owners' taste and lifestyle and, perhaps like no other piece of furniture, it becomes intrinsic to life - with often a whole generation worth of memories entwined in its very fabric.
"Buy the best sofa you can afford," is always the advice - but it's rarely helpful because, unlike other long-term investments such as a dining table or an expensive rug, a sofa's most meritorious assets are generally hidden from sight under layers of fabric, stuffing and springs. High quality sofas may differ in design but they have several attributes in common: solid hardwood frames in maple or beech, more often kiln-dried to prevent warping or cracking, and double-dowel construction at the joints for sturdiness and durability. At the highest level (towards the realm where you need a budget fit for a family-sized car) they are upholstered by means of traditional handcraft techniques with the base made of individual coil springs, a minimum of four deep, which are hand-tied to the frame at eight points.
It seems, then, that uncovering the true value of a sofa may require exhaustive questioning and keen decision-making. "A sofa is the one item of furniture with which you generally get what you pay for," says Simon Chaplin, a recognised authority on furniture and the owner of Chaplins Furniture, Europe's largest contemporary design store. Among its top quality sofa brands are several that are readily available from UAE retailers - among them Giorgetti, Ligne Roset, Paola Lenti, Poltrona Frau and Zanotta. Chaplin does not think that consumers at this end of the market need in-depth knowledge of furniture-making: "I actually don't agree that people need to know what goes into artisan-quality sofa design and manufacture. That's our job [as retailers] and ... [our] product knowledge should really be relied upon."
He stresses that sofas from the renowned design houses should not be mistaken with those that simply carry a "designer" label: "There are a lot of fashion brands that have gone down the upholstered furniture route but I have no interest in those. They charge a fortune but they have no substance; they are not artisans at heart and for them it's all about the name." If you're planning to buy a sofa there's more to deciding on your budget than picking a number, says Rima Dardenne, the owner of the Dubai-based design consultancy and retail store Irony Home. She advises her clients to ask themselves a lot of questions: "[I ask them to] think about the longevity of the sofa. Are you planning on taking it with you if you move house or country? Do you rent or own your home? Do you decorate regularly or plan to design the room for the long term? Take into account how often you will use your sofa, the use of the room - formal or casual, for entertaining guests, reading or watching TV. By asking yourself all these questions, often you will get the answer to that big question - what is your budget? Go shopping with this in mind."
How much rest and repose is provided by a particular sofa is subjective, of course, but there's often no correlation between high cost and comfort. The designer Ron Arad's D-Sofa fetched US$409,000 at auction in New York in 2007 - but since it is made of stainless steel, curling up on it with a good book is simply not an option. Even a few rungs down, many design classics can be deemed unyielding, or even downright uncomfortable: "I saved up almost two years for my Knoll sofa, which I fell in love after seeing it in an interiors magazine," recalls Phillipa Patton, a British writer. "It was so wonderfully sleek and angular - and when I finally bought it, it looked every bit as amazing in my flat as I thought it would." However, it didn't take long before friends admitted what they really thought of Patton's investment buy: "The general consensus was that people always felt they were in a doctor's waiting room whenever they sat on it - and despite loving it, I had to agree."
If you don't have a car-sized sofa budget and you're looking for good quality, comfort and no-nonsense style, the middle market offers an increasingly comprehensive choice, according to the Dubai-based interior designer Gillian Lordari: "You won't get the exquisite finishes of the designer pieces but for between Dh6,000 and Dh12,000 there is still quality and longevity to be had." Lordari says we should rejoice in the fact that those staples of the American middle classes - Crate and Barrel and Pottery Barn - have hit our shores: "Even though these companies are deemed mid-market, they do know what they are doing regarding upholstery."
In pride of place at the entrance of Pottery Barn in Mirdif City Centre sits the PB Comfort extra-large three-seater in cream twill. It's probably not going to win any design awards but, according to salespeople there, the whole PB sofa range is fast becoming a best-seller. It's not difficult to see why: beautifully yielding but supportive, the US-manufactured sofas feature kiln-dried hardwood frames, steel springs and a thick padding of recycled material around a polyurethane core that's 20 per cent soy-based material. At a touch over Dh6,000 the PB Comfort represents a range crafted in the tradition of the master upholster that won't break the bank.
Dardenne has also turned to the US for the sofa lines she will carry at Irony Home from this autumn: "They're innovatively-styled, custom-crafted and environmentally friendly." The same cannot be said for many of the sofas that fill the mass-market stores here. Lordari recalls a job several years ago in the UAE where she was called upon to help with the fit-out of an apartment hotel. "I was doing an inventory check after the furniture had been delivered and the odour from the faux-leather sofas was extremely overpowering. It was the first time I realised that there was more to worry about with a cheap sofa than it falling apart."
Who would have thought that a sofa could be toxic? Dardenne recalls her astonishment when seeking potential sofa suppliers at discovering that the foam padding used in some lower-priced sofas contains benzene, a known carcinogen. In April this year, three British companies, including Argos and Walmsleys - both large, budget-priced furniture retailers - paid out a total of £20 million (Dh116m) after admitting liability in the case of 1,650 people who suffered complaints ranging from skin lesions to breathing problems, due to a chemical called DMF (Dimethyl fumarate) in Chinese-manufactured leather sofas. Despite DMF having been proved to be harmful, the sofas had been packed with sachets of the chemical to stop them from going mouldy during storage.
"Some of these so-called 'cheaper' sofas aren't actually even that inexpensive," says Chaplin (the Argos sofa retailed at around the Dh5,000 mark). "But if your customers buy without knowing the provenance of their sofa, it's a bad call. They're often manufactured without conforming to basic environmental standards, the workmanship is shoddy and, ultimately, they're really not good for your health."
However, if your budget is below the mid-market bracket all is not lost. Not many people get to see the testing process for a Dh50,000 B&B Italia, for instance, but anyone who has perused the furniture floor at Ikea and seen the pummeling machines in action knows that the company takes the quality of its upholstery seriously - despite having no sofa priced above Dh6,000. Materials and products are rigorously tested either by Ikea's own test laboratory or external organisations to mimic everyday family life. As the company says of its best-selling Ektorp sofa "most people don't just sit in it. They sprawl all over it, they sit on the armrests, and sometimes they have dinner on it. But thanks to heavy-duty tests, we know that the frame is durable enough to cope without breaking, that the cushions will keep their form and shape, and that the cover can be removed, washed and put back on over and over again." Ikea is confident enough of its claims that it guarantees the sofas for five years.
In this age of instantly obsolete everything, that can only be good. And while an Ikea sofa is hardly likely to last long enough to be a Chippendale of the future, some of the very top brands mentioned above might have a chance: plenty of mid-20th-century originals are still going strong, now entering their third-generation of ownership. Chaplin says his favourite sofa of all time is the Maralunga, designed in 1972 by Vico Magistretti for Cassina; it has a place in New York's Museum of Modern Art as well as Chaplin's home in London: "It embodies every element of the perfect sofa for me," he says. "As well as its history it's the sort of timeless sofa you just want to own for a long time - and then pass it on."