Built for Comfort

No longer the hulking pieces of yesteryear, today's sectionals offer abundant seating, flexibility, and even style.

Focus On Home Decor

September 12, 2004|By Elaine Markoutsas | Elaine Markoutsas,Universal Press Syndicate

They're back -- and they're big.

The hip looks of sectionals are grabbing new fans. By definition, the sectional is the sum of its parts -- two or more pieces put together to create a contiguous seating surface. They are shaped like L's, C's, S's or brackets, slipcovered or upholstered snugly, and usually footed to lift their bulk from the floor so they look a little less imposing.

For some, the word conjures images of yesteryear's hulking pieces that formed an L-shaped sofa and ate the living room. But in spite of a sprawling form in its infancy, at least one furniture company marketed the furniture genre as a more petite-sounding "banquette."

Sherry Craig, now marketing director for Lee Industries, remembers an early model at Century Furniture, where she worked at the time.

"It was probably around 1969 or so. The banquette was a shade of poppy, in a linen floral, and it was stunning," she says.

But most people who bought furniture in the 1960s may recall sectionals with a basic, rather ungainly look relieved somewhat by rolled arms. They had matching bookend components that were split by a wedge not designed to stand alone.

For some manufacturers and consumers alike, the sectional never has gone out of style, even though it hasn't always been stylish. But in the past few years, several changes in homes have inspired manufacturers to rethink the design of the sectional.

Great rooms, a trend in new construction and remodeling, have expanses of space that need to be filled. But some rooms in the home have shrunk, requiring seating that is downsized but still offers versatility. Family rooms and sophisticated home theater spaces also require more flexible seating.

In most homes, residents fight for the longest sofa so they can stretch out and watch sports, soaps, a movie or the food channel. Manufacturers have responded with a new hybrid of the sectional that includes a chaise or ottoman as one element.

Variety of styles

And the sectional is not limited to contemporary styling, although some of the coolest designs indeed are modern. Sectionals today come in virtually all styles (even mission); a variety of frames, including sea grass, wicker and rattan; and a huge selection of fabrics (geometrics, florals, tropicals, solids with textures, chenilles, even velvets) and leathers, sometimes mixing patterns and solids in one piece.

What's perhaps most exciting about the latest sectional designs is that they're enormously versatile. Some sections are recliners or queen-sized beds (Lee Industries is one manufacturer that features such models), indicating that designers are listening to consumers who want to relax in the fullest sense.

Today's sectionals also may include other built-in features, such as storage (an American Leather sectional boasts a bookshelf circling its sinuous form), fold-down tables, drawers and cup holders. Home theaters instigated some of these features, starting with recliners that were joined at the hip, some curving like sectionals. La-Z-Boy and American Leather offer some excellent examples.

So, the idea is to personalize your sectional seating as needs change. One or two chaises may be part of the mix. Left arm or right arm, the long component may butt against a sofa piece, adding a graceful balancing proportion. Some chaises have spread in girth, resembling a fat twin bed.

Ottomans (some on casters) also provide a range of new options. Like puzzle pieces, they can be pulled apart and reconfigured, depending on the needs of family or guests. A pair of ottomans, for example, can be pulled up to different sectional seats to create a pair of chaises.

Comfort is key, although new sectionals also are fashionably hip. They include clean-lined, '40s-inspired chic and retro-look modules with asymmetrical backs and skinny chrome legs. Upholstery ranges from bold hues to slipcovered casual, even denim or whites suitable for a country cottage.

The frame might stand out from its upholstery, perhaps with a pillow in chartreuse against a multicolored mod pattern, as in eye-catching sectionals by California manufacturer DellaRobbia. Or the look can be monochromatic, as in Maine Cottage's watermelon-hued rattan sectional, a fresh look with cushions in the same delicious hue.

Although some modules are as small as 24 inches (ottoman size), most are at least the footprint of a loveseat (4 to 5 feet), with the majority a generous 72 inches or longer. For the larger pieces, you don't have to worry about components coming apart -- unless you want them to. Hooks and clips keep the parts in place.

Practical space-savers

As they often are twice the size of a sofa or better, you might expect to pay twice as much or more. But there's a formidable range in price, with some very good-looking sectionals, such as Crate and Barrel's fetching two-seater-cum-chaise, the blue Troy model, for under $1,500.

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