Do You Know Your Sofa Types? Here's How to Buy the Right Furniture for Your Space

Photo: Caitlin McGauley

Is it a sofa or a couch? Does it matter? What's the difference? Nowadays, terms like couch, sofa, and settee are thrown around interchangeably, and have come, for the most part, to mean the same thing. However, historically, couches have been the comfier of the two, derived from the French word coucher, or "to sleep." The less-comfortable sofas were considered more formal and the furniture of choice if you wanted to entertain guests. Thankfully, the sofa has evolved into a seat that is a lot cozier than the original wooden bench fluffed with pillows, and there are many to choose from. If you're redecorating and in the market for a new couch, start with this handy guide before hitting your favorite furniture stores. We'll help you choose a style that fits with both your decor and lifestyle so you can invest wisely.

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Chesterfield Sofa
Caitlin McGauley

Featuring high, rolled arms that are level with a tufted back, the chesterfield has an old-fashioned English Country look. Often upholstered in leather with the short legs left exposed, it has a deep seat and high frame that give it a cozy feel just right for chats.

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English Roll Arm

English Roll Arm Sofa
Caitlin McGauley

Neither too formal nor too casual, neither too traditional nor too modern, this Goldilocks choice works in a range of rooms and homes. Built with low, softly rolled arms and a relaxed pitch, it typically has loose cushions and a skirt but also looks great skirtless and on casters.

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Cabriole Sofa
Caitlin McGauley

Very French and traditional in feel, this pretty, petite seat features an exposed wood frame that arcs downward into low arms—perfect for a fancy parlor or primary bedroom.

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Mid-Century Sofa
Caitlin McGauley

With its clean, straight lines, this handsome piece is the epitome of statement-making cool. While it's just the thing to perch on with a cocktail, it's a bit too stiff for cozy lounging.

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Camelback Sofa
Caitlin McGauley

Elegant and formal, this beauty gets its name from the sinuous shape of its tight back (meaning the back is attached to the sofa itself), which curves down into high, rolled arms. A graceful addition to a living room, it has a narrow seat, making it suitable for a bedroom or front hall.

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Tuxedo Sofa
Caitlin McGauley

Sometimes described as an updated chesterfield, the tuxedo has high, straight arms that are set level with its back, giving it a trim, modern look. A little too closed in to work in a cocktail party setting, this is a nap-friendly addition to a library or home office.

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Knole Sofa
Caitlin McGauley

Extremely regal and old-world, this design dates from the 17th century, when it was often used as a throne. Tame its extremely high back by placing it against a wall in a big room.

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Caitlin McGauley

Possibly the most commonly found sofa style, this casual, comfortable American classic has low arms—either rounded or square—and an appealing solidity. It is unassuming enough to work in a variety of rooms.

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True to its name, the loveseat, which is a smaller version of a full-size sofa, is built to fit exactly two people. It's also known as the courting chair, and it's pretty impossible to not strike up a conversation with your neighbor if you both sit on it.

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futon sofa
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For those who want or enjoy a bit of practicality in their furniture, the futon sofa does a good job. It's a little less involved than the sofa bed, as all you must do is lay it flat to convert it into a sleeping space. Typically, they're built lower to the ground than a typical sofa. And, in the morning, just fold it back into the upright position and you have your sofa again.

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Chaise Lounge

chaise lounge
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Derived from French and meaning "long chair," the chaise lounge is built for, well, lounging. Some come as a sofa chaise, in which you can extend the sofa without needing an ottoman. Others are specifically built as one long lounging chair and are typically upholstered, but contemporary and modern designs are available, too. Depending on the type you buy, you can choose between one that has arms or no arms.

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sectional sofa
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Sectional sofas typically come in three to five pieces and leave the configuration up to the buyer. Popular arrangements include the "L" and "U" shapes, and while easy to move, there are also usually attachments that will prevent the sofa from separating while people are sitting on it.

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If you love something old-fashioned with European flair, the settee is for you. Think of it as a less-comfortable sofa with a lot more charm, something along the lines of what you'd find in a Rococo painting. They're usually made of wood and upholstered, resembling wider dining chairs. Settees are great eye candy, but as they can be rather stiff, may not be great candidates for comfort.

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recliner sofa
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This is the sofa that's, shall we say, quite laid back. These are great for a TV or entertainment room where you'd want to curl up with a movie or book. Many are electronically controlled and made of leather or a material of a similar look. And, they're quite plush.

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Similar to the chaise lounge, the divan is a long, slim piece of furniture that may or may not have a back. It can be pushed up against a wall or set in the middle of a room to provide more open seating. Arms on either side will hold some pillows.

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The daybed is best described as part bed, part divan, part chaise lounge. It plays the part of sofa by day and bed by night. However, unlike a futon or sofa bed, it does not fold out. Rather, a mattress makes up the seating where the cushions would normally be. Some daybeds also have trundles that you can pull out and store an extra mattress on.

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