Buying guide: The perfect sofa

Are you in the market for a new sofa? My sympathies. Sofa shopping is stressful. Not only is it a high-ticket item, but you’re going to be sitting on it — and looking at it — every single day. For years.  

But the good news is that finding the right sofa is a lot easier if you know what to look for. So, before you begin your quest, become a sofa ninja with this checklist of things you’ll want to consider.

The style of the arms

The back and seat cushions

After you’ve decided on the type of arm that’s best for you, think about the back and seat cushions. There are two main ways to go: loose cushions or a tight back and seat. A sofa with loose cushions is typically more comfortable — you can really sink into it. It’s also easier to maintain because you can clean or replace individual cushions, and you can flip the cushions to extend their life. However, they can look sloppy if you don’t keep the cushions plumped up. You also have to be OK with the reality that the cushions won’t be lined up perfectly level at all times.

The type of fabric

Typically, when you’re buying a sofa from a furniture store, you’ll be given a choice of one or two fabrics that the sofa is stocked in, but with the option of selecting a custom fabric if you’re willing to pay more and wait longer for delivery. 

What fabric is right for you? If the sofa is going to get a lot of use, and if there will be food and kids in the picture, make sure the fabric is easy to clean. Synthetics or cotton and wool blends are easier to maintain than silks. Velvets and microsuedes are wonderfully soft, but you have to deal with the nap — when the fabric fibers lie in a particular direction, depending on how you touch it. I like to do a scratch test on the fabric to see how it holds up. Go ahead and dig in there with your nails — whatever you choose is going to get a lot more wear and tear than that at home. 

And if you’re shopping for a sofa online, always ask for a swatch of the fabric you’re interested in so you can see the true color and actually feel it.

Test drive it

It should be a given that you should always try sitting on any sofa you’re considering — even lie down on it — but too many people buy based on a photo without even sitting on the sofa. Don’t do that. 

Here’s my cautionary tale: There is a particular furniture store in Los Angeles (that will remain nameless) that offers many inexpensive, stylish sofas that look beautiful in the advertisements. When I went into the store to kill some time before a movie started, I decided to sit on all the sofas to see how comfortable they were. To my dismay, they did not seem to be designed for people with normal bodies. The proportions were all off. I felt like Goldilocks trying to find one that wasn’t too shallow or too deep. 

In addition to sitting on the sofa, try lifting it at a corner to see how sturdy it is. If it’s very light and you can lift it like you’re Superman, the wood frame is probably not strong hardwood. Don’t hesitate to jiggle it around, too, to make sure it doesn’t sag or make creaking noises.

Choosing the right size

Measure ahead of time so you know what size sofa your room will accommodate. Use masking tape to map out where the sofa will be positioned, and check whether any pathways will be blocked and if coffee and accent tables will still fit the room.

Make sure, too, that your new sofa will fit through your front door. I found out the hard way how important it is to premeasure your doorframe: I once bought a sofa for a client that, when it was delivered, would not fit through the front door. The sofa hadn’t looked so big in the store. I was sweating buckets until the delivery guy suggested removing the legs. Fortunately, its legs screwed off and the sofa was able to squeeze through.

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at

Is an IKEA Sofa for You?

I have a confession to make. I own an IKEA sofa. 

When I disclose this little tidbit of information, people think I’m kidding. IKEA is great for bookcases and office furniture, but there is still a stigma attached to IKEA’s more substantial furniture pieces, like beds and sofas. So when I was in the market for a new sofa sectional a few months ago, I initially did not consider anything from IKEA. 

The new sofa I was buying was replacing an old sofa from Z Gallerie that was on its last legs. The upholstery was shot. And because the cushion was attached to the frame, I couldn’t just replace the cushion; the entire sofa needed to be reupholstered. 

From my experience with the Z Gallerie sofa, I knew the one most important feature I wanted in my new sofa — removable covers. Reupholstering a sofa often costs more than buying a new one. Slipcovered sofas made sense for me, but I did not like the style of traditional slipcovered sofas I was seeing in stores. I’m just not a shabby chic kind of person. If only I could find a modern sofa with removable, replaceable slipcovers.

That’s when a nagging voice in my head kept telling me (in a Swedish accent) to think about IKEA. Because IKEA offers its sofas in a variety of colors, yet aims to keep inventory and its signature “flatpacking” manageable, most of its sofas come with removable covers. Eureka! But how’s the quality? The comfort? The style?

Knowing you can’t judge a sofa by an online photo, I ventured to the IKEA store in Carson to give it the old Goldilocks, trying every sofa to see which one — if any — felt just right.

At the top of my list was the Friheten. It is a thoughtfully designed, compact sectional that folds out into a bed, and best of all, is available in hot pink. Hot pink, people! There’s even a hidden storage compartment under one of the cushions. I was ready to buy it … until I sat on it. The cushions are so stiff I could not imagine lounging on the Friheten for more than a few minutes. In a way, it would be ideal for out-of-town guests because it would make them want to leave.

Next, I tried the Ektorp, which was actually quite comfortable. I could picture it in a cozy Scandinavian farmhouse. But comfortable as it was, the traditional style did not go with my modern décor. 

Then I sat on the Karlstad. Now this was more like it. Here was a sofa that had clean, contemporary lines. The cushions had just the right amount of give. And it had a wide selection of cushion-cover fabrics. I really loved that these cushion covers were form-fitting and did not look at all like slipcovers. The one minus of the Karlstad was the ugly legs. They are rectangular light-wood blocks that scream “cheap.” Fortunately, IKEA sells modern aluminum legs that go with the Karlstad for only $20 per set of four. 

So, after more bouncing up and down on the showroom pieces, I purchased my first IKEA sofa — the Karlstad chaise/loveseat combination. I selected the Isunda Gray fabric, which is a beautiful tweed that seemed very durable. And the retail price of my configuration was just $829.

I was warned that assembly was required on the sofa, but I figured that meant I would just have to screw in the legs and put on the cushion covers. Oh no, was I mistaken. When the delivery people dropped off the multiple boxes in my house (I recall there were at least seven different boxes I had to take apart), I realized I would have to basically assemble the whole frame, connecting the seat, back and arms. Fun.

But you know what? It wasn’t that hard to put together. It did take me almost three hours, because we’re talking four separate assembly manuals totaling 64 pages, but each individual step was easy. And I’m not that handy.

So how is the sofa holding up? Sofa, so good. The cushions are holding their shape quite nicely, and the fabric still looks new. It has not pilled, even with the dogs’ occasional scratching. I am actually not that worried, because worst-case scenario, if the upholstery is destroyed, I can buy replacement covers at IKEA for about $200. 

Is an IKEA sofa for everyone? Of course not. But if you keep an open mind, there are several benefits to an IKEA sofa that you won’t find with other brands. I find it interesting that while there is a perception that IKEA furniture does not last, the ability to change out the upholstery in many of its sofas actually gives the furniture a longevity lacking in more expensive options. 

And one more nugget of information: I wrote this column sitting on the Karlstad, using one of the sofa arms as my laptop table. Like I said before, IKEA’s always been great for office furniture. 

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” ”Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects on

Kerry on the couch

We now join U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry lying on the couch in his therapist’s office:

Therapist: “When did you get back from Jerusalem?”

Kerry: “Hmm, I’m not sure. I ran out of Ambien on the trip so I’m a little sleep-deprived right now. But I think it was this morning.”

Therapist: “You take Ambien?”

Kerry: “You kidding? How else could I survive all these trips I’m making to Israel? This was my fifth one there since March. I think I beat Kissinger’s record from 1973.”

Therapist: “Why do you keep going there?”

Kerry: “Have you been talking to my wife? She’s always asking me that. I keep going to Israel because I want to go down in history. Not go down in history, but go down in history.”

Therapist: “What do you mean?”

Kerry: “Ever since I took this job, all the smart people have been telling me to stay away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That it’s a snake pit — an impossible mission. That the Middle East is burning and there are other places that need my attention a lot more.”

Therapist: “Are they right?”

Kerry: “Maybe, but I don’t really care. I want to do what all my predecessors failed to do.”

Therapist: “Tell me about that.”

Kerry: “I want to do great things. I want to be better than everyone else. Like we’ve talked about before, I was never popular with the girls in high school. I was kind of awkward and gawky. So I compensated by doing a lot of things.”

Therapist: “Like what?”

Kerry: “You know, I would just work harder than everyone else. Chess club. Tennis. Debating club. Fencing. Wrestling. No challenge was too big for me. That’s the way it’s been my whole life — Vietnam, the Senate, the White House.”

Therapist: “But you lost the White House.”

Kerry: “Please don’t remind me.”

Therapist: “That’s what I’m here for.  How did it make you feel?”

Kerry: “You sure you want to get into this?”

Therapist: “Of course, it’s important. This is how we’ll get some real work done.”

Kerry: “Well, the loss killed me. I came this close to the top of the mountain. This close to being numero uno in the world. And I lost to a cowboy — to the big man on campus. It brought me back to my high school days … when I had to claw my way to compete with the cool guys.”

Therapist: “Tell me more about that.”

Kerry: “I crashed. I felt as if everything I had accomplished up until then was for naught. As if I’d been transported right back to high school, to being that awkward and gawky kid trying desperately to be popular.”

Therapist: “How did you deal with it?”

Kerry: “I put on an act. I pretended I was OK, even with my wife and kids. But inside, I was dying.”

Therapist: “How long did it last?”

Kerry: “Right up until I was chosen to be secretary of state earlier this year. That’s when I started getting out of my funk. Now I can get back that mountain I lost.”

Therapist: “What do you mean?”

Kerry: “Look, even though I lost the White House, I have a chance now to win the Nobel Peace Prize. There’s nothing cooler in the world. Nothing more popular! I will work harder than ever to win it.”

Therapist: “But what if you don’t?”

Kerry: “Failure is not an option.”

Therapist: “John, I don’t want to see you crash again. You need to feel OK inside so that the external losses won’t devastate you.”

Kerry: “The only way I will feel OK inside is if I win. And I know I can do it. I just know it. People are telling me that I’m banging my head against a wall — that despite all these trips and meetings, neither side is budging an inch. But I will wear them down, you’ll see.”

Therapist: “Why do you think you can succeed?”

Kerry: “Here’s something you don’t know, doc. In international diplomacy, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the holy grail. It doesn’t matter that thousands of people are being murdered all around there. All the eyes of the world are on the Jews and the Palestinians.”

Therapist: “So, what will you do?”

Kerry: “Look, the world is so obsessed with this conflict that they gave that terrorist Arafat a Nobel prize just for taking meetings! Now, if I can only get Bibi and Abbas in the same room, I really think I have a shot at the big prize. I’m only slightly exaggerating.”

Therapist: “Seriously? But what if you fail even at that?”

Kerry: “I’ll do what I always do — I’ll work even harder! I told you: Failure is not an option.”

Therapist: “OK, John. I’ll see you at our next session. Get some rest.” 

Couch Quest — Path to Past and Future

Furniture, vital in everyday life, hardly ever plays a large role in art. Henry James’ "The Spoils of Poynton" comes to mind, in which the characters’ inner lives are manifested in their dreadful fight over inherited furnishings, as do stories by Anzia Yezierska, in which the meager possessions of immigrant Jews on the Lower East Side come to symbolize both their survival and their salvation. But for the most part, as in much of our lives, tables, chairs, sofas, bureaus, cabinets and the like are taken for granted in art, imbued with little meaning.

In "Divan," a lovely, funny and terrifically moving documentary by Pearl Gluck, the eponymous piece of furniture — a couch upon which several famous 19th- and 20th-century Hungarian rabbis slept — becomes not just a connection to a historical past, but an ironic, and at times contentious, symbol of family fealty and difference. In its 71 minutes, Gluck gives us not just a tale of high family drama, but a serious meditation on the nature of history, memory, betrayal and the significance and insignificance of furniture.

Gluck, who began making "Divan" in 1998 at the age of 27, was born to a Chasidic family in Brooklyn’s Borough Park. Her parents divorced when a she was in her early teens. While most of the women in her father’s community were married by the time they turned 18 and never pursued higher education, Gluck went to Brandeis University, got her bachelor’s degree, became a filmmaker and stayed single. When her father voiced a desire for her to marry and move back to the insular world of Borough Park, Gluck searched for a compromise that would repair family schisms but allow her to continue the life she had been leading. In 1996 she was awarded a Fulbright to collect oral histories of Yiddish-speakers in Hungary, where her parents still had many relatives and, before she left, her father gave her a video camera. He asked her, in lieu of returning to Brooklyn, to bring back from Hungary a family heirloom: the divan upon which the famous Kossonye rebbes rested.

While the narrative backbone of "Divan" is Gluck’s quest for the couch — a large, high-backed, cushioned, wooden structure closer to what we today might more likely call an upholstered bench — her story is actually a journey to the past to find a way to live in the future. Gluck has structured the film around two trips to Hungary: The first is her search for the divan and her quest to meet, for the first time, her parents’ relatives who survived the Holocaust; the second is a pilgrimage she takes with her father a year later to visit the burial sites of the founders of chasidism ("20 grave sites, thousands of miles, seven days"). It is on this frame (to stretch the metaphor thin) that Gluck adds the cloth textures and the cushions of interviews with friends — women and men who left chasidic communities and are now in the process of creating lives that fuse aspects of their past with interests that sustain their current spiritual and psychic growth.

This is a lot of complicated and emotionally charged material for just over an hour, and Gluck’s intelligence and subtlety as a filmmaker allow her to pull it off without either condescending toward her father or compromising her own vision, feelings and opinions. There are moving moments here — including a scene in which Gluck visits a memorial commemorating many of her relatives who were murdered at Auschwitz — but she often keeps the tone on the light side. At first this feels odd, and you wonder if she doesn’t understand the somber complexity of her own material. But as the film progresses, this contrasting tonality becomes increasingly powerful. Halfway through the film, when Gluck realizes that she may not be able to retrieve the divan because her more Orthodox relatives don’t approve of her secularism, we viscerally feel her sense of betrayal. Later, in various scenes — when she is asked by chasidic men to cover her arms in a public place while speaking to them, tie back her unruly hair in their presence and not use the video camera — Gluck’s sorrow in attempting to bring together two divergent pieces of her heritage and life become palpable. In many ways, "Divan" is intended as a peace offering to her father, yet he will not allow himself to be shown in the film.

The genius of "Divan" is that Gluck has managed, in both her life and the film, to find creative ways to bridge her past and present. Watching it inevitably brings to mind Sandi Simcha DuBowski’s recent documentary "Trembling Before G-d," in which his subjects are in spiritual and psychological agony over what they feel is their expulsion from their communities. The power of DuBowski’s film stems from the raw, unhealed and apparently irreconcilable pain of spiritual and sexual difference. (Interestingly, while none of the friends interviewed in "Divan" are identified on film as lesbian or gay, many of the issues they speak of as being problematic for their families — remaining unmarried, not having children — are resonant of the subjects in "Trembling" as well.)

While the excruciation of watching "Trembling Before G-d" was unrelieved, Gluck struggles to find common ground and a sense of solace that do not involve compromise. She never really gets her father to accept her completely, and she remains angry at all of the attempts to deprive her of her past, but at the film’s conclusion her father travels from Borough Park to her Manhattan apartment to work with her on editing this film. It is a bittersweet, semi-comfortable coda to complicated lives and complicated journeys. While her original plan to deliver the family’s venerable divan to her father becomes increasingly problematic and entangled, she does deliver this exquisite, often disturbing, but touching film to both him and us.

"Divan" opens May 21 at Laemmle’s Music Hall Theatre in Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869 and at the Town Center 5 in Encino, (818) 981-9811.