The Biggest Design Decision You’ll Ever Make – the Sectional   

By Marni Jameson  

I am about to make the biggest furniture decision of my life. Big as in takes up half the room. Big as in if I make a mistake, there’s no hiding it behind a potted plant.

I’m buying a sectional. A three-piece, L-shaped, place to park six, seven or eight behinds, and maybe a dog or two.

You want to know when you’re truly grown up? It’s not when you make your first dental appointment (congratulations), or when you buy life insurance. You are truly grown up when you buy your first sectional.

Sectionals (two or more upholstered seating components that go together) are to furniture what SUVs are to cars, a sign to the world that you’re not foot-loose and fancy-free anymore. You’ve got folks that need accommodating.

When my husband and I moved into the Happier Yellow House last November, we knew the family room called out for a sectional, which we didn’t have. So we set down the blue-grey sofa and love seat we did have, temporarily.

When our youngest daughter heard “temporarily,” she decided the blue sofas needed to move out of our house and move into her new place in Nashville, where she’s moving next month for graduate school.

Now she is literally taking the seats out from under us, forcing me to face the biggest design decision of my life.

I confront the family room as if it’s my own mortality. I enter a brain wrestling match with myself. Which way should the sectional face? How long should each side be? Should it have left or right facing arms? A chaise or a wedge? Would it be, U-shaped, L-shaped, or curved.

Then I went and poured myself a shot of vodka.

I chased that with a shot of courage and called Bondi Coley, spokeswoman for Lee Industries, a wholesale manufacturer of upholstered furniture, for some couch therapy. The North Carolina-based company has been making sectionals since 1969, so they have this stuff down.

“A great sectional is like a member of the family,” said Coley. “It provides a lot more opportunity for togetherness. The kids, their friends, the dog, the parents, all crash out on it and watch Netflix.”

Coley speaks from experience. Her own blue-denim sectional survived her two now grown boys, their two labs, and a regular dogpile of friends, and still looks good.

And sectionals are suddenly hot again.

“For 10 or 15 years, consumers shied away from sectionals,” Coley said, “probably because the economy was uncertain. But we have seen a huge surge in sectional sales over the last 18 months.”

She attributes their rise in popularity to the fact that people are breathing a little easier and so are investing in their homes again. “Our typical customer is 45 to 60 years old. They are landing in the home where they plan to stay.”

That’s me!

Staying is key, because a custom sectional is just that, tailored to a space. It doesn’t always transition well to the next home.

But, if you are designing to dwell and not sell, a well-designed sectional can help the room cohere in a way that separate pieces of furniture can’t. Besides eliminating the need for multiple sofas and chairs, a sectional provides more seating in less space.

“A sofa and love seat can comfortably seat five people,” said Coley, “while a sectional covering the same area can seat seven or eight.”

Here’s what she says to consider before making that big decision:

  • Draw it up. Since a sectional is likely the biggest piece of furniture you’ll buy, be sure you have the space. Make a to-scale drawing of your room on graph paper. Indicate windows, doors, and traffic flow to determine shape and size. It shouldn’t block a doorway, obstruct a sight line, or stick up higher than a window ledge. Sketch which way the sectional will run, and face. Play with different arrangements. Try nesting it neatly in a corner, or floating it. Mark off the area on the floor with masking tape to visualize how the pieces will fit.
  • Know the pieces. Designing a sectional is like playing with Legos. You have multiple pieces to choose from and you get to build your ensemble. Components include sofas, love seats and chairs sizes, armless or with one or two arms. You must know that “right arm facing” (RAF) means that when you are facing the piece (not when you’re sitting on it), the arm is on your right. “Left arm facing” means the arm is on your left when you face the piece. This is critical, and it’s where most ordering mistakes are made, said Coley. Now build. Put a right arm facing love seat next to a corner wedge and a left arm facing chaise. Or, swap the chaise for a left-arm-facing sofa with an armless chair between the sofa and the corner section to extend the bench. See what I mean? Note: the more components, the higher the price.
  • Don’t skimp. Because sectionals are a household’s workhorse, and not simply occasional furniture, look for well-made products from manufacturers who have been around for a while. I look for upholstered furniture made with hard wood frames, eight-way-hand-tied springs, and high-quality fill.
  • Measure twice order once. Measure every dimension, and factor in overall dimensions (the pieces added together). Consider delivery dimensions, too. The pieces might fit in the room all right, but can they get in the door, around the corner and up the stairs?
  • Though you can buy readymade sectionals, most are made to order. The waiting period is often eight weeks or longer. “We turn sofas around within four to five weeks of receiving the order,” said Lee’s Coley. I’m counting on that, as we’ll soon be seat less.

Join me next week, as DC and I hash out our sectional options, and finally agree on a shape, style and fabric.

Syndicated columnist Marni Jameson is the author of three home and lifestyle books, including Downsizing the Family Home – What to Save, What to Let Go (Sterling Publishing). You may reach her at www.marnijameson.com.

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