Decorating a living room comes with one almost universal question: sectional or sofa? Sectionals are the obvious space-saver and offer more flexibility with layout than the traditional setup of a sofa and two chairs. They’re the more frugal option, too, if you employ the logic that one piece of furniture is probably cheaper than three. So why do so many of us default to the sofa?
It’s possible we’re daunted by the myriad configuration options that come with picking out sectionals, or bugged by the thought that some unlucky guest won’t have a back cushion. Or maybe it’s pure laziness: Squaring off a sofa and two chairs is easier than getting creative, after all.
But designers are quick to sing the sectional’s praises. “Whatever your hesitations are, get over them,” says Liz Levin, a Maryland designer. “Especially if you’re in a small space, it’s probably exactly the solution you’re looking for.”
Nicole Lanteri, a Virginia designer, agrees. “The biggest misconception is that all sectionals are big,” she said, “but if you measure the footprint and think about your layout, they actually give you more wiggle room.”
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The modern sectional, which has a low, boxy frame, modular design and sleek silhouette, became popular in the 1950s during the mid-century modern movement and was popularized by Charles and Ray Eames. Although it certainly influenced style trends, it had an even greater impact on traditional furniture layouts.
While it’s gone through its share of trends over the years (remember those marshmallow-looking sofas from the ‘80s?) it’s still a go-to secret weapon among designers who want to do more with less. Levin says sectionals are particularly handy for clients in small spaces who like to entertain. A sofa and two chairs can make the room feel cluttered and closed off, but a sectional lets the room breathe. The key, she said, is to make sure at least once piece of the sectional is backless.
“I almost never use sectionals in which every piece has a back because it starts to feel like house arrest,” she said. “Keep the flow open.”
When Lanteri moved into her condo in Arlington, she wanted a sectional that offered some flexibility with layout. She bought the Lotus sectional from CB2 ($499-$799 per piece, www.cb2.com); she puts the three pieces together into a wrap-around when she has company and manages to seat eight to 10 people on it. At other times, she breaks it up into a sofa and two chairs.
These days, most mainstream retailers such as Room & Board and Pottery Barn offer sectionals that can be fully customized, from the fabric to the feet.
“People get tired of living in condos because they feel like they want more space,” she said, “but if you buy furniture that works with you, that you can adjust to suit different occasions, like movie nights or parties, you can do a lot more with a little space.”
Once you’ve decided to take the plunge and shop for a sectional, you need to determine how much room you have to work with. Because sectionals don’t need so much breathing room, you probably have more space to work with than you think.
“Modern sectionals tend to have clean, sleek lines,” Levin says, “and you can push them right up against the wall because the chaise usually sticks out and gives the layout some variation.”
As a general guideline, Levin recommends choosing an eight- or nine-foot sofa with a 60-to-72-inch chaise. Anything smaller, she said, can feel cramped and hinder your odds of fitting a practical coffee table. For very small spaces, Lanteri, 36, recommends sectionals that are about 36 to 40 inches deep. Target’s Zuo Axiom sectional in Ash Gray ($1,399, www.target.com) is narrow without seeming uncomfortable and stiff.
Sectionals with fold-out sofa beds can come in handy for guests but often have skirting at the base. If the extra bed is more of a convenience than a necessity, consider a slightly wider sectional that can double as a bed when needed. Joybird’s Eliot sectional ($2,999, www.joybird.com), is easily crash-worthy but has sleek mid-century modern lines and button-tufted cushions for a dose of style.
The most popular sectional configuration for small rooms is a two-piece L-shaped sofa, which consists of a left- or right-facing arm on one end and a chaise on the other. Some retailers, such as West Elm, offer a style of sofa with the option to buy the pieces together or separately.
But be sure to crunch a few numbers and sketch out different arrangements. In some cases, buying a pre-arranged sectional is cheaper than ordering separate pieces, but you may want the freedom to orchestrate the sectional exactly as you like. Most companies, such as West Elm, keep it simple: The brand’s two-piece Crosby Sectional in Pebble Weave consists of a chaise and sofa that, together or separately, will cost $2,298 to $2,498, depending on the color.
If that opens up some room in your budget, buy a pair of colorful throw pillows to toss on top. Says Levin: “You’ve already decluttered the space by removing a few pieces of furniture, so go ahead and spice things up.”