When casting the couch

Times Staff Writer

IT took Eddi Henry two years to find the perfect sofa for her airy loft in downtown Long Beach.

She envisioned a contemporary sectional that would serve as the centerpiece of her high-ceilinged, window-dominated living room. She wanted more than something to sit on. She wanted a 10-foot-long statement of her style, her passion for the environment and a reminder of vacations in tropical islands.

"A sofa has to be about you," Henry says. "Not about the showroom you bought it from."

She waded through stores in West Hollywood, nixing the frilly and ho-hum. She briefly considered having her husband, Steven, build her one. She bumped her original budget up a few thousand dollars, to $10,000. Still no luck; a big void remained in her living room.

Henry's quest is not unfamiliar. It's hard for many people to find the right couch, especially one that will dominate the most public part of a home.

Furniture experts says it's usually the most stylized seating we have, yet most of us also want it to be as comfortable and inviting as our bed. Memories of grandmother's doily-decked love seat and the hand-me-down in our first home mix with the murky mental picture of what we want today.

When couples move in together, some of the longest negotiations are over which couch stays and which one goes, regardless of its loyalty or good looks. In the end, we tend to hold on to a couch longer than most relationships. It's no wonder that when salespeople ask us what we're looking for, we answer them with a fuzzy feeling — "something that says 'home' " — rather than a specific silhouette or color. With so much emotion involved, maybe it's not a coincidence that therapists invite us to lie down on their couches.

"It's a deeply personal piece of furniture," says Reiko Gomez, a New York-based interior designer and feng shui expert who has picky clients on both coasts. "From the way it looks and feels, it's the statement you want to make about your taste and style."

Or the person you want to be. A couch, she says, tells the world if you are sophisticated or casual; the hands-off, showpiece-sofa kind; or the cushy, friends-clustered-around-watching-TV type.

The American Home Furnishings Alliance in High Point, N.C., which tracks trends for furniture manufacturers, reports that two of the most popular couches are complete opposites: a highly structured, low-profile piece with dark wood finishes, and an extra-wide, bouncy sectional. Traditional styles, more than ever, are getting a dash of modern elements such as exposed legs rather than flirty skirts and microfiber upholstery rather than cotton.

"A sofa has many roles," Gomez says.

Even the nomenclature is telling. Designers refer to this piece of furniture as a "sofa" — defined by Webster as "an upholstered seat for more than one person." Most of us call it a "couch" — which is a piece of furniture used "to lie down, recline, as for rest" or even more interestingly, "to lie in concealment."

Some couches, of course, should be hidden away. Since 1995, Surefit, which makes slipcovers to cloak sofa sins, has sponsored the Ugly Couch Contest. Of the thousands of painfully awful entries, one stands out: a squashed-down, canoe-shaped brown-, yellow-, blue-checked.

But in the squishy world of decorating, even "ugly" can be defended. Gomez has a client who has moved into a Manhattan penthouse but is reluctant to replace the dirty, patch-worn couch he's had since college. He knows it's time to leave the dorm-room décor behind, but "it's touchy discussing the removal of the old leather sofa," Gomez says. "He's ready to tear down walls and do major construction, but he asks that we don't touch the sofa just yet."

Gomez lets out a long exhale. Later that day she planned to meet with a Los Angeles-based celebrity to go over "the couch situation."

"It can become the most time-consuming aspect of designing a whole house," she says. "Tomorrow I'm having a sofa delivered to a client and I'm crossing my fingers. It isn't the color I would have picked — to me it looks like a shriveled raisin — but it was his personal choice."

A longing for the perfect couch was the inspiration for a new home design magazine. Deborah Needleman was working at House & Garden magazine, going in and out of showrooms. Still, she couldn't find a couch to replace the 15-year-old one she had in her living room. "I kept having anxiety that I hadn't seen them all and I worried that once I committed to one, a better one would come along," she says. "It's not unlike a marriage, except you can date more prolifically than buy a couch."

She wished she had a girlfriend who knew where to shop and could guide her and make her search fun. She then realized that a magazine could be that girlfriend. Domino, fresh on the racks and packed with furnishing choices and suggestions on how to use them, is her printed version of that savvy source. She said she was able to make a sofa choice once she went into a furniture store that covered each piece in muslin. That way, she said, she could concentrate on the shape and size, not be distracted by the upholstery.

Jeffrey Lee, who sells sofas for $700 to $1,500 at Metropolitan Living in Long Beach, says that despite the 200 examples he has to show customers, many can't explain what they want. He says he takes clues from their body language. "If someone sits upright in a couch, I know he is a formal person who wants something structured with straight tuxedo arms and no pillows or fuss. If he sinks into one of our down-filled couches and his arms spread across the loose cushioned back, I see him as a guy with a remote in one hand and a beer in the other. He wants a big marshmallow-like couch."

Lee says the experienced customers walk in knowing the dimensions of the room, the width of the doorway ("Once we had to cut a 96-inch couch in half to deliver it," he says) and an idea of color. "Usually the men want comfort and the women want a specific color. We can create a couch that makes both happy. But if one of them won't compromise, we just walk away," says Lee, who is trying to blend a household with his girlfriend, who prefers Shabby Chic style over his desire for practical leather.

In May, a desperate Hayden Epstein checked out furniture websites with his girlfriend, Melissa Mitzelfelt, before driving an hour and a half from his San Diego home to Lee's showroom. The couple, in their mid-20s, were moving out of a house they shared with his brother and friends and into their first place. Mitzelfelt had a couch already, what Epstein called a "nondescript, normal, grayish one" that was 5 years old, so they were only looking for a chair.

"I didn't have much to say about the chair," says Epstein. "What I say about furniture doesn't really matter. Whatever she wanted, that's what we were going to get."

While she was scoping out chairs in the store, Epstein sat down on a 9-foot-long faux-suede sectional and saw his future. "It was the most comfortable thing I ever laid on," he says. "I knew then that we would never use that other couch."

While he was still on the plush couch, he waved Mitzelfelt over, and "she jumped and laid on top of me," he says. "And the discussion was pretty much over."

Another couple hasn't been so successful … yet. Agnes Gomes-Koizumi, 32, and David Koizumi, 33, have been staring at his mother's old brownish sofa, with a leaf pattern and Queen Anne legs, since they married three years ago. "It's soft and large, but I don't really like it," says Gomes-Koizumi. They agreed on that much, but its replacement had to:

•  satisfy his craving for a low-back, swank, '60s-style love seat in brown leather and her practical need for good lumbar support

•  serve as the guest bed

•  endure their two cats without showing wear and

•  work not only in their Silver Lake apartment but the house they plan to buy in the future.

Oh, and she wanted it red, just for fun.

Finally, they divided up the apartment, and his style is displayed in the dining room, her more colorful one in the bedroom. And the living room? "We decided to get a mossy green pullout sofa because no matter where we live, we can put it into a study," she says.

Reiko acted as a counselor when mediating between newlywed clients who had different views of a fitting couch. He's 6 feet 2 inches and she's 5 feet. The final solution: His and hers. The living room in the couple's South Hampton house has her chenille sectional and his modern recliner, and the den has his structured leather sofa that supports his taller frame and her powder blue Ultrasuede swivel chair with ottoman.

If loved ones are emotionally attached to the wrong couch, can we gracefully separate them? Gomez has won some, and lost some. She's hopeful she will wean her male client away from his dorm-room sofa, but it won't be that easy with another client's teenage daughter. The 13-year-old sees their old couch as the one constant in years of moving. "It's in storage and the mother wants to get rid of it," Gomez says, "but the daughter grew up on it and loves it as if it were her baby blanket."

Eddi Henry, meanwhile, finally found her dream couch at Pacific Green in Newport Beach. It's a sleek, one-armed sectional covered in black leather that is creased like elephant skin. Its cushions are penned in by V-shaped palm-wood planks grown in Fiji and reinforced with wax-based resin. The cushions untie and the two sections convert into 4-foot-wide twin guest beds.

"It was handmade with a primitive mind-set, which I like," says Henry, an environmentalist. She was told that the farmer who cut down the coconut palm tree when it was no longer producing fruit traded it in for a fruiting tree. That sealed the deal.

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