Tuesday, March 07, 2006

What Makes a Chair or Sofa Comfortable?

Barbara King in the March issue of House Beautiful writes an article entitled Comfort, Inc

What makes a chair great?

There's more to picking a chair or sofa than looks. It has to feel good, too. When it comes to seating, one size-or shape-never fits all. So we paid a visit to Steven Jonas in New York to learn the essentials of comfort, quality, and sitting where you ought to sit. He is president of Jonas, a family of upholsterers who have for three generations have been making custom seating. The Jonas showrooms is the Chanel of upholstery, with 260 styles of armchairs, armless chairs, dining chairs, sofas, love seats, and chaise lingues, all in white muslim like dressmaker's mannequins. As I tried them out, here's what Steven had to say:

How should a person go about finding the most comfortable chair or sofa?
The first thing you've got to do is sit in them. Simple, right? You can't order a sofa online with a guarantee that it's going to be comfortable. It's one of the biggest mistakes people make. It's not all about aesthetics. I mean, aesthetics are very important, but as architects would say, form follows function. Function is paramount. We can build it right; it's just a matter of what's right for you. There's no one particular chair or sofa that suits everybody. It depends on how you like to sit, how tall you are, how big, how young, how old. And what you're using it for.

After 30 years of being in this business, can you look at someone and pretty much size up what will be right for them?
You know what? This is the way I think of furniture when I look at a person. Your legs, your knees, your butt, your back, your neck-these are important factors in finding a piece of furniture.

Explain that, please.
Some people like to sit with their back at an angle. Some people like to sit with their knees parallel, their legs straight. These are different issues you want to think about when you;re sitting on a piece of furniture. Basically it comes down to your center of gravity-where you want the least stress. You buy a chair so you can either be cradled in it or sit on top of it. Like, my mom wants a chair where she's on top of it. Get up, push out. I like a chair where I can sit in a pair of pajamas and feel enveoped. And some people like both.

Do men and women differ in their preferences?
Men generally like deeper. more slouchy chairs. Women like more upright ones that give them better posture.

What did you mean when you said you can build a chair or sofa right?
A good chair, a good sofa, starts with the construction. You've gotto have top-grade wood. We use a maple that's been dried in a kiln, no defects, one solid piece-that way you don't get breakage. We hand-tie the springs with soft cord so they stay springy. We layer and keep layering with burlap, horsehair, cotton, a down pad, muslin. You're never supposed to feel the lumber.

Does that all add up to comfort?
Well, there's more to it than that. Like the pitch of the seat. It should be graduated, 20 percent from front to back. And then there's what you fill it with. Our cushions are 80 percent down, 20 percent feather. The back of the seat is 100 percent down.
Here's a piece of advice, by the way. Don't ever vacuum your down cushions, because vacuums are very powerful these days, and eventually the quills start to poke out. Give the cushions a whack once in a while to get the surface dust off, and once a year, in the spring, put them out in the sun for a few hours. The warnmth will perk up the loft again. Just like it does on a duck.

How does less expensive furniture differ from the top end?
The wood isn't one piece, and it's not always the best quality. You often feel the wood in the platform and the arms. The springs aren't hand-tied and you're not getting a variety of springs. you need various gauges, so they'll move independently and not as a unit. Here, feel the arm of this sofa. See? It moves. It's alive. It has life, a mind of its own. Now check out the back. It's firmer in the lumbar region, where it's supposed to be firmer and softer the rest of the way up. Beautiful, don't you think?

Let's say someone is in a small apartment or doesn't have lots of money to spend on a range of pieces. What would you recommend they buy?
I would go with a deeper sofa, because you can always put a pillow on it and make it upright if you need to. And a comfortable man-size chair. Then probably an open-arm chair of some sort where you can sit straighter-it also adds a lightness to the room.

Editors comments:

Here at Landfair Furniture + Design Gallery I agree with most of what Jonas says. When you are looking for a sofa or chair, sit on it. We try to have examples of the various types of seating available in our showroom. There are many variables such as a tight back, cushion or pillow back. Then there is seat height and seat depth. A woman 5 foot three will want a different seat height than a man of 6 feet.

Jonas offers cushions that are 80 percent down and 20 percent feather. The Sherrill line we carry exemplifies the range of cushion options.

There is "spring down", It is the most expensive, but has the best sit. It has Marshall springs surrounded by down, always comes back to its original shape and has low maintenance.

There is "comfort down" which is all down. I don't recommend it for a sofa. Down needs a lot of maintenance. It needs to be whacked when you get up from sitting on it. If you choose this type of cushion for a sofa, your sofa can start to look lopsided.

There is "fiber down" which mimics down, but is not quite as soft. It is great for people who are allergic to down or have a limited budget.

Finally, there is "standard UD", the least expensive and tends to have a higher crown.

While it is true "you get what you pay for", it is more important to choose a chair or sofa that is right for the space you have. You don't need the same quality of chair or sofa in a low traffic area or that will get little use. Use that same kind of chair or sofa in a heavy use area and it is liable to break down in a year. Choose a chair or sofa that is the right size for the area and leave room for a place for lighting and a table for beverages.

As Edith Ann would say, "That's the truth, phlllllppp!"

Bev & Mike
Landfair Furniture + Design Gallery

NOTE: Edith Ann's Rocking Chair - On the comedy variety series ROWAN & MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN/NBC/1968-73 comedian Lily Tomlin played a devilish five and a half year old little girl named Edith Ann. Ms. Tomlin in her role of Edith sat on a jumbo-sized rocking chair that made her adult-sized body look like a little girl's. Rocking her chair Edith Ann would tell childish stories about her family and her dog Buster. When she concluded a point she said "And that's the truth" and sputtered her tongue as she gave the audience the raspberry.
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