interior design

14 Designers Explain: How to Choose the Right Upholstery

by Tawnee Madlen Walker

Designers Explain: How to Choose the Right Upholstery?

Decisions, decisions, decisions — when it comes to upholstery, the endless amount of choices can make picking the right fabric quite daunting. Pattern or solid? Bold color or neutral? Fabric or leather? There are infinite possibilities to express yourself while setting the tone of a room with upholstery.

The right upholstery is an investment, so unless you have an endless upholstery fund, you better plan on finding something you’ll love for the long run. But not to fear, we’re here to help tackle this process head-on. We asked 14 designers to walk us through their decision-making process on how they choose the right upholstery for a space. —Tawnee

Image above: “Picking upholstery can be both fun and challenging. The first thing I take into consideration is where the piece is going — if the item is going into a high-use room, then I try and pick a fabric that is durable and will wear well, and often in a darker color palette. If the item is larger, then I like to pick a more neutral fabric so that it doesn’t dictate the rest of the room. Smaller pieces are where I like to add both pattern and texture. Using bold fabric on accent chairs can really transform a room, but are easier to change out should trends evolve. Don’t forget to shop around when you find a fabric you love because prices can vary considerably from different vendors” —Kirsten Blazek, Creative Director of 1000x Better

"Functionality is key. Assessing the level of abuse the upholstered piece will endure over its lifetime is critical in determining the right type of fabric for a commercial or residential project. Most upholstery fabrics come with ratings to help narrow down this decision. Additionally, the hand of stain-resistant fabrics are much improved these days, giving us greater options. Once we answer the functionality question, then it is onto the fun stuff - colors, textures, patterns - all of which are dependent on our design concept.” - Anishka + Niya, from Ishka Designs. Photo by Nkosi Gomez
"When I'm looking for fabric for a vintage piece, the first thing I consider is the color. For more sculptural, quirky pieces I tend to like to use neutral colors (grey, black, white) to make them look a bit more subtle and elegant. If I have a simpler piece of furniture and I want a pop of color, I'll opt for something with a bit more vibrance. So you have to have the color palette of the room figured out before you choose fabric. The next consideration I make is texture. I try to mix up the upholstery styles in the room. So if there's a lot of velvet in a space, I'll opt for linen, canvas, or leather. Finally, I take material and durability into account. If the piece is going in a highly trafficked area, I'll opt for something that has a lot of polyester in it (which is more durable and repels stains). For items that are rarely used/sat upon, I'm less concerned with durability and make the choice mostly on color and texture." - Orlando Soria, Homepolish Premier Designer. Photo by Zeke Ruelas
"When you’re choosing upholstery for a large piece of furniture, such as a sofa, it can be an investment so I always recommend sticking with a solid fabric in a color you’ll never tire of. Prints tend to be trend-driven and although that bold print you love might look awesome now, there’s a good chance it will feel dated in a few years, whereas solids are always timeless. Plus, you can always accent your sofa with a mix of pillows in fun prints or patterns to give it some personality." Nicole Gibbons, from Nicole Gibbons Style. Photo by David A. Land
Jessica Helgerson doesn't stick with the norms. Here, she plays with texture by upholstering a giant sectional using Peruvian blankets.
"The main criteria for us, when we’re choosing upholstery, is what the room needs as far as color and pattern and how much wear the piece is likely to get. We’ve been upholstering with some interesting things lately; for a giant sectional in Brooklyn we used 18 Peruvian blankets (photo above) and recently we upholstered another sectional in a whole collection of Moroccan flat-weave rugs. I love the playfulness and pattern we get that way. We’ve upholstered chairs in sheepskins for super cozy fuzziness. Our most frequent go-to fabric is cotton velvet, for its softness, the thousands of pretty colors it comes in, and its tremendously solid wear." – Jessica Helgerson, from Jessica Helgerson Interior Design. Photo by Parker Fitzgerald
"When choosing upholstery there are several factors you will want to consider. Are you wanting to make a statement or are you looking for something more subtle? While statement furniture has a time and a place, neutral upholstery can be easier to work with if you ever want to change up your look. Remember that neutrals can be dressed with bold accent pillows and throws to change throughout the seasons. You'll also want to consider the "livable" factor. Do you have kids or pets? Choose an upholstery that is fitting to the space. A formal room that doesn't get a lot of traffic may be able to handle a light colored fabric, while a well loved family room might need something that is more durable and functional, like leather. A well-thought-out upholstery choice can lead to a piece of furniture that you will love for years to come!" - Katie & Cara, from Blythe and Barnett
"For upholstery, it is important to think about both the look you want to achieve and the piece’s intended use. You might love the look of a light-weight white linen slipcover, but if you’ve got little kids, a dog, or a spill-prone spouse, you may want to consider a more heavy-weight fabric that can withstand the constant wear and tear. Or consider a print!" - Patrick McGrath, from Patrick McGrath Design
"When choosing an upholstered piece you want to think first of how you will use it and what your home life looks like. If you have kids or pets, you might want to use an outdoor fabric. If this is a moment to do something more luxurious, then go bold with a fun color you love or a cozy fabric like crushed velvet fabric. And remember, reupholstery is expensive, so you'll want to keep in mind what you'll love longterm." - Nicole Davis, from Nicole Davis Interiors.
"After considering the function, pay close attention to tone and texture. I find that to achieve an airy feel, it is best to stick with light textures like linen or cotton. For a more collected look, mix various textures together in one space - look for velvet, wool, and leather to pair with your light pieces. Upholstery is an investment, so I tend to prefer solids on the big pieces and will incorporate prints on accents like ottomans or chairs." Shea McGee, from Studio McGee. Photo by Lindsay Salazar
"First ask who you are designing for and how do they really live? When thoughtfully considered, the specifics of form, scale, and fabric selections will come with ease and ensure a result that is most comforting to the spirit. In the end, it only looks as good as it feels... so focus on comfort and quality above all else. Then consider what honestly reflects the style of the owner and when possible, choose a bold pattern or color! Ashli Mizell, from Ashli Mizell.
"Choosing the right upholstery is always a balance between form and function. Upholstery pieces tend to be high-use so clients are always concerned about comfort and durability. They are also major players in the design scheme, bringing opportunities to use great textiles and really liven up the space, so the design and construction is very important. We err towards clean lines and slimmer silhouettes in general, to avoid anything overstuffed or bulky that could date itself in a few years. Choose pieces that fit well in your space and don't overwhelm, and go for timeless silhouettes that will endure." - Heidi Caillier, from Heidi Caillier Design.
"I tell clients if it's a piece you're going to really use make sure you love sitting in it. If it's a room you're curling up to watch movies in, extra seat depth is great, but if it's an entertaining space, a really deep sofa can swallow people and make it hard to sit comfortably. You want the piece you choose to really work for you in the way you're going to use it!" - Alexandra Kaehler, from Alexandra Kaehler Design.

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    • Is it the standout piece in the room? Then go basic with the fabric, I’d say. Choose a quality fabric with a feel that you l-o-v-e, in a neutral color that speaks to you. If you are lucky enough to own lots of antiques all residing in a particular room, then I like the advice given early on in this post: use a splashy fabric on this settee only if it’s one of the smaller furniture pieces in the room.

    • If it’s a period piece, I would choose a damask, something that is timeless and elegant.
      I get generous pieces of fabric swatches, bring it home and hold it against the frame of the chair and look at it during different light of the day.
      Get a fabric that you know will blend in with the rest of the room’s accessories, the carpet, the paint color, the more permanent paintings on the wall etc. etc.
      I’m in the same dilemma.
      I have two Giselle chairs that I inherited from a dear friend and I have been going back and forth to the fabric district here in LA bringing home countless samples of fabric, thinking and rethinking the long term commitment I have to a particular pattern.
      Always asking myself, can I live this is for the next 5 years, is the pattern too overpowering juxpositioned to the area where it will be positioned,
      given the shape of the wood of the furniture, is the pattern subtle enough to bring out the beautiful lines of the chair.
      It’s a tough choice. But one day you might see a fabric and you will just know that you made the right choice.

  • I liked your advice about choosing upholstery that is dark and durable if it is going to be located in a room where it will see heavy use. I’ve been meaning to get my furniture reupholstered, and wondered what I should choose All that is left is to find an upholstery service that has a nice selection of dark fabrics that I could choose from. Thanks for the great article.

  • I like that you mentioned to think about choosing upholstery that is one solid color. That way, it won’t feel out of date after a few years. That is a really good idea. My wife and I are trying to furnish our living room, and we are having trouble deciding on upholstery for our sofa. I will definitely keep this in mind as we look around.

  • I am definitely “stuck”…I have two lovely white-washed Morris Chairs in a relatively small sunroom. Lots of sun but current (sun-damaged) upholstery is 100% cotton and awesome to touch and sit on…no wear just yellow splotches (humidity?)….The floor in the room is a LARGE mosaic in southwest pastels…..the current fabric is a floral with a VERY large repeat on a deep cream background. I do not know how to specify a LARGE Pattern and a LARGE repeat and 100% cotton to narrow my search….I have been to local fabric stores to no avail….lots of linen out there and lots of “less” durable fabrics. Any suggestions?

  • My wife and I have been thinking about finding some upholstery services that we could use to be able to get us some new looking furniture, and I think that being able to read about how we can best do that in your article was super informative! I’m glad you said that you want to think about both the look and the use for the intended piece you want the new upholstery for. I think that being able to keep those in mind would be good for us, and hopefully get us the best option at having a successful transformation!

  • My husband and I have some old furniture we would love to get reupholstered, but we don’t know how to pick some good upholstery to replace the current look. That is a good idea to take into consideration where the furniture is going first. If we are going to put it in a high-use room it would be important to pick a fabric that is durable. That is a great idea. Thank you for all the tips!

  • These are some great tips, I really like the one from Jessica Helgerson about choosing the upholstery based on what colors the room needs. After all, I’ve definitely been in a situation where I’ve walked into a room and immediately thought that another color was needed to pull the whole look together. Reupholstering the furniture with that color is a great, natural way to get it into the room without having to buy anymore furniture.

  • Its hard to choosing the upholstery based on what colors the room needs, but Thanks for sharing very interesting guide. If possible I am waiting your guide for corner sofas.

  • Finding the right upholstery fabric is key to our living room remodel. Like you said, it’s an investment, so we definitely want to get it right! We’ll have to find a way to test out different fabrics before buying them.

  • Super helpful article!! In my opinion, when choosing a fabric, functionality is the key to check. Also, one need to consider whether your sofa will be used by pets or children or not? If your pets are sharing your sofa with you, consider a microfiber fabric or leather.

  • Hello! Thank you for helpful article. My dilemma is ME! I tend to gravitate towards anything NOT popular. Aren’t solids and neutrals TRENDS? My preference is not something off showroom floor. I have a lovely vintage French sofa and am exploring a bold upholstery fabric to balance the formality of the piece. At nearly $200 per yard, though, I am terrified to commit, but I keep going back to this fabric. I am bored with thought of staying safe with solid. Please offer your thoughts. And advise any counseling fee. Thank you.