How to buy a sofa that won’t just last a few years, but a few generations

Well-made sofas aren’t only supremely comfortable. They also have the capacity to last for several generations, says Giles Kime.

In the National Portrait Gallery, there is a picture painted by James Tissot in 1870 of the army intelligence officer Captain Frederick Burnaby, airily waving a fag as he lounges languidly on a sofa. Burnaby was famous for his physical prowess (he is supposed to have carried a pony under one arm) and given that he was 6ft 4in and 20 stone, he looks remarkably comfortable on a modestly proportioned sofa.

It’s hard to imagine a latter-day Frederick Burnaby looking similarly languorous on a modern sofa, so many of which tend to be a triumph of style over comfort.

Captain Frederick Burnaby In his uniform as a captain in the Royal Horse Guards, seated near a map of Asia. Oil on mahogany panel, 1870, by James Tissot.

Anyone who has ever succumbed to the cosseting embrace of a duck and down-stuffed Victorian sofa will be aware that traditionally made upholstery is supernaturally comfortable. The vast amount of Victorian upholstered furniture still being used on a daily basis (notably those made by Howard, which regularly pop up at auction) bears testament to the fact that a well-made sofa can have considerable staying power. The sofa on which I spend many of my evenings was acquired by my great-grandfather in about 1900. What is more impressive is the fact that he bought it second-hand.

When I was asked to chair a webinar with the title The Beauty’s In The Detail: Upholstery In The Hands Of Interior Designers at this year’s virtual incarnation of Decorex, I assumed that the focus would be on their appearance. In fact, the panellists, Tara Craig, Bunny Turner and Joanna Plant, were more interested in the inside of upholstered furniture than the outsides, in particular craftsmanship, construction, natural materials and, of course, the infinite possibilities of bespoke.

A Soane sofa mid-construction.

Interior designer Miss Craig has an intimate understanding of all four, having launched Ensemblier (www.ensemblierlondon.com), which makes headboards, sofas and chairs with the potential to pretty much last forever, with ingredients including horsehair, linen and hessian webbing and beech frames. As can all traditionally made furniture, they can also be easily and effectively restored.

Her fellow panellists also agreed that making a bespoke sofa or armchair offered the opportunity to create something that is not only unique, but will also last for a few generations.

The costs? Inevitably, they aren’t cheap — you won’t get much change out of £10,000. But over a century or two, that seems like a bargain.