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Make sure you choose the right sofa Add to ...

Sofas are like mothers. However large or small, they have an outsized influence on a room - at least the one you happen to be in. And while most people have good mothers, few people have good sofas.

This is a quandary I don't quite understand. Shouldn't it be the other way around? After all, you can't choose your mother, but you can choose your sofa.

There is something peculiar going on here, but I'm just a simple designer, and the strangeness of humans is beyond my powers of explanation.

What I can do is tell you three sofas it horrifies me to see when I walk into a living room.

The quirky, arty sofa

Ever seen Beetlejuice? Edward Scissorhands? The latter Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? All were directed by Tim Burton, and each is a flight of demented imagination.

Burton, who has carved a cinematic niche out of the bizarre and uneasy, makes films that are uncanny in the Freudian sense - by making the familiar menacing and psychologically uncomfortable. For the love of Pete, stay away from the Burtonesque sofas. They're all whimsy and warped nostalgia, dark swoops and surreal detail.

You don't need to go through the looking glass. There may be an argument for art that induces physical or emotional distress, there isn't one for a sofa that does the same.

Shape is everything in a sofa - it sets the tone for the style and proportion of the other furnishings in the room.

If you want something contoured and romantic, choose a sofa that has a single curve on the back and a rolled arm.

But make sure the roll of the arm is tight: anything wider than eight inches begins to look soppy and exaggerated.

If your soul is a contemporary one, you'll want to keep to the boxy and simple. A squared sofa with straight lines goes well with almost any other furnishing.

One caveat: stay away from bulky arms. The effect is one of egotism, and, besides, they eat up valuable sitting room.

If you insist on a psychologically complicated sofa - if it's really who you are - look to the high-end lines from Sweden, Finland, and Italy.

People from those countries can wear stylish clothing that would look hilariously strange on a Canadian and yet carry it off. So it is with their sofas.

Make certain of one thing, though: that the furnishings around your playfully absurd sofa are restrained and chromatically muted.

A kazoo is not an orchestra instrument.

The lazy, mushy sofa

The what? Go on, you know this one. She's the overstuffed seductress - granted, two words you don't often see together - who lures you to her lap when you venture into the furniture store. She coos soothingly in your ear, finally convincing you to take her home to your barren apartment.

She's not the most attractive thing, is she? But she feels right - her chenille folds, her fuzzy expanses of beige, her pop-out footrests. You could spend days in her. And even better: when you buy her she's interest-free for two years and comes with a complimentary pasta maker.

I have no grudge with our La-Z-Girl other than ugliness. She certainly is one of the coziest places to while away time. But sofas are not high heels, and comfort and style are not mutually hostile quantities. It's not necessary to forgo the one for the other.

There's the question of proportions. If you're a lanky intellectual who likes to spend his Sundays stretched out, reading about the Social Contract, you'll need a sofa that's at least eight feet long. Rookie sofa-buyers always short themselves on a sofa's seat depth, which should be at least 22 inches. Height-wise, you have a few more options: while the seats of most Modern sofas fall between 12 and 16 inches, you can find many transitional models that range up to 22 inches. As a woman of 5'7", I prefer a seat back of 18 inches.

The brown leather sofa

Here's where things get sticky. People seem to associate leather with quality and longevity, and they'll buy anything clad in it - so long as it's chocolate brown.

This mystifies me. To me, leather is like crying: acceptable in a limited set of circumstances; annoying, unwelcome, and ineffective outside them. Weeping, I realize, may be a poor metaphor for chocolate leather because the furnishing is so masculine. But what I'm hoping is that men come to associate the two, and so think twice before asking the shop clerk, "Do you, uh, have that in leather, with a tufted back?"

Leather has its place, but these days it's overused. If you don't believe me, go to the Restoration Hardware website. Two of their sofas - the Hamilton and the Easton - look beautiful in leather. But the 11 others - in particular the Parisian and the Grayson - look like they're wearing someone else's clothes.

My suggestion for you, men, is to keep your leather in your cigar lounges and pool halls - or rooms inspired by them. If you insist on the material, keep it away from shapely, feminine sofas. Like a delicate scent in a beer garden, their subtlety and intrigue gets flattened.

If a leather sofa really is your thing, you'll want a buff one that has relaxed cushions, a square back, and tightly rolled, metal-tacked arms. The beauty of this piece is the simplicity of its shape, which doesn't compete with the texture of the distressed leather. It looks good almost anywhere, forever.

Another good style is the angular and boxy leather sofa. It has high, square arms, chunky back cushions, and linear details. Upholstered in shiny dark-brown leather, it sits solidly on square mahogany legs. Unlike the buff sofa, this one looks best in a room with rich woods and weighty textiles - it must be surrounded by substance and confidence.

A mother speaks in a powerful voice, and children must learn to accommodate themselves to her influence, and her whims. A sofa is your chance to renegotiate this tricky bargain. Choose wisely, and your living room will not be an arena of crossed signals and frustration. A sofa, too, speaks powerfully, but this time you get to choose what it says.

Kelly Deck is the director of Kelly Deck Design, based in Vancouver, and the host of Take it Outside on HGTV.

Follow on Twitter: @kellydeckdesign

 

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