What’s so great about a sectional sofa?
“It’s the Swiss Army knife of seating,” said Chris Weir, a partner at Studio Collins Weir, an interior design firm in Sausalito, Calif. “You can program a space for multiple uses with one piece of furniture. You can have a cocktail party with perched seating, but then also have space to flake out and watch TV. There’s something really lovely and open-ended about them.”
Furniture manufacturers offer sectionals with dozens of modules that allow for customization well beyond a simple sofa with an attached chaise. So buyers can create custom configurations that address specific spaces and activities — whether that means defining a gathering area in an open loft, maximizing seating in a small media room or catering to the lounging preferences of numerous family members.
With so many sofa systems available from manufacturers, and all those components, how do you choose a sectional that will work for you? We asked Mr. Weir and other designers for advice.
Measure Your Room
Shopping for a sectional sofa isn’t like shopping for a simple chair, when an eyeball check in the furniture showroom can be enough to know whether it will fit in your living room. “With the sectional, it’s such a big thing that if it’s not sized right, it can feel like it’s taking up the whole room,” Mr. Weir said.
To guard against surprises on delivery day, he suggested measuring the room where the sectional will go and drawing a basic scaled floor plan with the dimensions of the space, so you know what you’re working with. Also, measure and record the positions of doorways, windows and any other obstructions, like fireplaces, that you need to work around.
When you find a sectional you like, draw it into the plan to make sure it will fit gracefully and not overwhelm the space or cause circulation problems.
Select the Location
There are two basic ways to position a sectional in a room: pushed up against one or more walls, or floating as a stand-alone piece.
In smaller rooms, the only way to make a sofa fit might be to push it against the walls. “It maximizes the furniture footprint of the room, and can feel architectural and almost built-in,” said Jamie Bush, an interior designer in Los Angeles. “It’s meant to be cozy and enveloping.”
In large, open spaces, a free-floating sectional can be used to create a welcoming seating area. For this year’s San Francisco Decorator Showcase, Studio Collins Weir designed a circular sectional that sits in front of a fireplace. “The room was so large, but the sofa allowed us to create a very intimate group” of seating, said Susan Collins, a partner at the firm. “So the space feels comfortable.”
This approach can also be turned on its head by treating the sectional as an island, with outward facing seats on all, or most, sides. “Not only does it look unexpected, while keeping the circulation around the room open, it creates opportunities for conversations that feel a bit freer and more casual,” said Kelly Behun, an interior designer who created two such seating islands with Living Divani’s Extra Wall sectional in her house in the Hamptons.
Choose Angles or Curves
Most sectionals have modules that connect at 90-degree angles, but some offer alterative angles or curves.
“Not all sectionals are L-shaped,” said Tori Golub, an interior designer in New York. “Some are much more sculptural and can be configured to organize the space exactly as you want to use it.”
In an open loft in Greenwich Village, for instance, Ms. Golub installed a sectional by Christophe Delcourt with pieces that connect at 45-degree angles, which allowed the sofa to gently curl around a television-viewing area.
For a house in Houston, Mr. Bush designed a curvy sectional that snakes around one corner of a media room while leaving space for windows and a floor lamp behind it.
“By making it a curved element and pulling it off the wall, it’s more of a sculptural element, floating in space,” he said.
Decide on a Seat Height and Depth
Sectionals have dramatically different seating heights, from a low-slung, lounge-y 12 inches to an elevated 18 inches or higher.
In general, Ms. Golub said, the higher the seat, the more formal the sectional will feel. A sectional with a high seat might be good in a traditional living room, but for more relaxed spaces, like a media room, lower is often preferable.
“If it’s really for lounging and lying around, the lower to the ground it is, and the deeper it is, the better,” she said. “The more you raise a sofa off the ground, the shallower it needs to be for comfortable sitting.”
Deep sofas, with a depth of more than 40 inches, generally suit those who want to curl up like they’re on a bed, while shallower sofas, with a depth of about 36 inches, are ideal for those who prefer a more upright, chair-like position.
The good news for couples who have different preferences is that many sectionals come in a choice of seat depths, with components that can be combined. “You can do one side deeper and one side shallower, to get two different kinds of seating,” Ms. Collins said.
Consider Adjustability (If You’re Planning to Move)
Some sectionals have components that are easier to move around than others. For a media room in a Los Angeles home, Mr. Bush chose a Tufty-Time sectional from B&B Italia with three ottomans that can be pushed into the sofa to create a giant improvised mattress. “I wanted it to be a place where people could crash in this modular mosh pit,” he said. “You can just push those up, and five people could sleep there.”
And in a house he designed for a young family near Lake Tahoe, he installed a Togo sectional from Ligne Roset, because the components can function as stand-alone seating — as separate lounge chairs and a small sofa, for instance — or be pushed together to form a single sectional for movie night.
“You can even make forts of out it, or flip the pieces upside down to crawl through them like a tunnel,” he said, which makes it popular with the children.
Sectionals like these are also easy to reconfigure if you move to a new home, whereas others don’t offer this level of flexibility. Once they are ordered and installed, they can be difficult, or even impossible, to reconfigure. So if there is a chance you might move to a new home in the near future, plan accordingly.
Create a Configuration
With sectional modules available in so many shapes, sizes and styles — with and without arms and backs — the options for piecing one together are virtually unlimited. But there are a few rules of thumb that can be helpful in planning the configuration.
First, choose a few focal points. “Oftentimes, with a sectional sofa you want to accomplish two things — for instance, looking at a view and looking at a fireplace or TV,” Ms. Collins said. That may result in a layout with two main sections, she said, that “invite two different ways of using the space.”
It is also rarely desirable to see the back of a sectional (or any sofa) when you walk into a room. “You want to come into the open end when you enter the space,” said John Beckmann, the founder of the New York-based design firm Axis Mundi. “You don’t want to come in from behind — that’s just awkward.”
Where the back or arms of a sofa would block sightlines, it is often possible to introduce ottoman-like modules that have only seat cushions. In a Manhattan apartment with expansive views, for example, Mr. Beckmann installed a large Let It Be sectional from Poltrona Frau with several modules that open views to the windows and a fireplace, in between more supportive modules with backs and arms.
Choose the Fabric
Because it’s so big, a sectional upholstered in boldly patterned fabric can overwhelm a room. In most cases, choosing a fabric with a solid color is a safer bet.
“We wouldn’t use a bold pattern on a sectional, because there is so much of it,” Mr. Weir said. “We often do something neutral, where we can play other fabrics and finishes off it,” using accessories like pillows and throws.
And with any luck, that will give the sectional longevity as styles change, he said, by allowing the appearance of the sofa to be adjusted with new accessories.
“It’s an investment,” Mr. Weir said. “Going more neutral, so you can work with it over time, makes a lot of sense.”