15 Couch Styles: History, Design & Shopping Tips

Thursday, April 1, 2021

When looking for the sofa of your dreams the first shopping criteria that come to mind might be things like color, material, and size. While these are all very important, the thing you should consider first is what couch style you are looking for. There are several different sofa styles to choose from and each has its own unique personality, look and history. We’ve gathered them together in this comprehensive couch guide to make your shopping experience as seamless as possible.

Traditional Couch Styles

For the purposes of this style guide, we’ve gathered all couch styles originating before the 19th century in the traditional section. Note that any of these more classic styles can be made in a modern way and are by no means outdated or unfashionable. In fact, these couch styles have been around for hundreds of years for a reason – they are timeless. 

1. The Bridgewater

If you’re looking for a classic couch style for your living room, look no further than the Bridgewater. It is noted for its low arms and high back and often features a slipcover (although you can opt for an upholstered look instead). This style is usually found in a more traditional design and is a great option for those seeking comfort above all else.

2. The Camelback

More traditionally minded people may prefer the stately aesthetic of a camelback couch. Its main feature is having a back that is higher in the center and tapers down to the arms of the sofa. Originating in the late 1700s, you’ve probably seen one or two of these classic couches at your local museum. But outdated it is not. This look is easily modernized and can be a great centerpiece if upholstered with a bold color or patterned fabric.

3. The Cabriole

While this style can be seen in both traditional and modern styles, the Cabriole is a classic couch that has been around for centuries. The Cabriole features a back and arms that are equal in height, and distinct legs in the cabriole-style. In fact, the long line along the back is continuous and curves gently as it reaches the arms. These arms scoop around the sitter and provide a cozy, intimate feel.

4. The Knole

Similar to the Cabriole, the Knole features a back and arms that are all the same height. While the Cabriole features one smooth, long line, the Knole is angular, making it a more modern take on the traditional style. Because the equally tall sides almost act as backs themselves, this couch provides intimate seating and is great for long conversations. Invented around 1640, the Knole was initially not a couch at all, but designed as a double throne, allowing king and queen to sit side by side.

5. The English Roll Arm

You probably know someone right now who owns an English Roll Arm sofa. It’s a very popular choice and has been around since the 1800s. This couch has a slightly sloped back, low curved arms and a matching curved bottom. Some English Roll Arms have detachable cushions on the back, while others have cushions that are connected to the furniture. It’s a comfortable, traditional style that is great for homes with soft lines and a more classic feel.

6. The Chaise Lounge

This style comes to us from 16th century France and was designed as a place for the upper-class to rest and relax. In modern times, it’s a great place to snuggle up with a book or take a quick nap. The Chaise Lounge is characterized as a long reclining chair with a high back and one arm, but often with none. It’s great as part of a sectional (more on that below), as a secondary couch, or as the main seating in a bedroom.

7. The Chesterfield

A Chesterfield-style couch is charactered by quilted or tufted fabric with arms and a back that are equal length. The quilted material can either isolated to the back and arms or all over the piece. The first couch to be commissioned in this style was requested by Philip Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773).

8. & 9. Divans & Daybeds

Divans and daybeds are not interchangeable but share key features. The divan was primarily used in the Middle East and made its way to Europe around the 18th century. It’s known as being a tufted mattress-like sofa with no arms or back that is often pushed up against the wall and can be used as a bed at night. Popular in ancient Greece, a daybed is also bed-like, but features a low back, two arms and a twin-sized mattress. Oftentimes, contemporary daybeds feature a trundle underneath for even more sleep space. Or, you can make your daybed look like a traditional sofa by choosing matching upholstery for the mattress and pillow cushions.

Contemporary Modern Couch Styles

Although most traditional couches can be contemporized and fashioned with a modern flair, the following styles are more recent designs for those with a love of cleans lines and simple, eye-catching aesthetics.

1. Mid-Century Modern

An American design style that was active from 1945 to 1969, the mid-century modern aesthetic is defined by clean, simple lines and the use of modern materials. Sofas in this style are pretty recognizable and are often referred to simply as “modern”. A mid-century modern couch is perfect for those who like a simple, minimalistic look with no frills – literally.

2. The Track Arm Sofa

The track arm sofa is one with boxed arms and clean lines. This one is less of a true distinct style, and more of a feature. You can have track arms on various different styles to achieve a modern look. For example, you can contemporize a classic Chesterfield look by adding track arms.

3. The Tuxedo Couch

Tuxedo couches first appeared on the scene in the 1920s. This style was originated in Tuxedo Park, New York – yes, it’s the same place that invented the tuxedo suit. This style is known for its very square shape, with arms and back at the same height and exposed legs. The Tuxedo Couch gives off a very modern, sleek vibe and is great for those seeking a modern look with a bit of history.

4. The Lawson

If you’re looking for comfort, then a Lawson-style sofa could be the one for you. Created in the early 20th century for financier Thomas W. Lawson, the main goal of this sofa was to find comfort in a modern design. Similar in look to the Tuxedo Couch, this style features a back made up of pillows that can be detached from the frame – perfect for moving around to create the most comfortable seating possible.

5. The Futon

While the futon was originally invented by the Japanese as a traditional style of bedding, the modern futon sofa was designed by William Brouwer in 1982. Characterized by a foldable cushion on top of a simple frame, this is a great option for smaller spaces and helps provide additional sleeping space for guests.

6. Contemporary Couches

Most current couches that aren’t strictly modern are really just contemporized versions of traditional styles. For example: a velvet green Cabriole with metal legs, a tufted Farmhouse-style English Roll Arm, or a Mid-Century Modern daybed. That means that you can easily modernize any of the traditional styles to match more modern home décor.

Modifications & Extra Features

As mentioned earlier, you can modify almost any style to achieve the look you are going for or to modernize a classic shape. Here, we’ll discuss some common sofa vocabulary as well as extra features and modifications couches may have.

The Settee & The Loveseat

You may see these words attached to one of the styles described in this article. What do they mean? A settee typically describes a sofa that fits more than two people, while a love seat is a sofa designed for two people. In fact, in England, the word settee is usually used interchangeably with sofa, so think of it as your standard-sized couch. Loveseats are great as secondary seating, accent pieces or in smaller living spaces. Consider these sizes when shopping for your next sofa!

The Sectional

A sectional sofa is one comprised of several sections to create a longer, usually L-shaped couch. People often opt for a sectional in their main living area or media room to maximize the number of people who can sit at one time, as well as provide a variety of seating options. It’s technically not a design style; it is more of an expression of a style. For example: a sectional might be made up of several different sofa types in one style. You may choose a Mid-Century Modern sectional that connects a traditional three-person sofa with a chaise lounge at the end. 

The Recliner

We all know what a recliner is. But it’s important to point out that it is not a couch style, and more of an additional function or feature you can add to many couch styles. Take a standard English Roll Arm sofa. Oftentimes, you can find this style as a recliner. Or, that Mid-Century Modern sectional we talked about could have a recliner as one of its sections.

Sleeper Sofas

Different from the futon sofa, sleeper sofas have metal cots built into the seat of the couch. The cot can be pulled out after removing the top seat cushions to form a standard-sized bed. You can find sleeper-style sofas in a variety of styles – so you can find one to fit your living room’s vibe or include it as part of your sectional. Plus, a sleeper sofa is a good addition to a living room that needs to act as a guest room on occasion.

Couch Materials

Now that we know the different couch styles and extra features, it’s time to consider materials and fabrics. Sometimes, the materials used is what sets a couch style apart from others. For example, a Cabriole sofa made with whicker or rattan could give off a more boho furniture style, while one made of dark wood and fabric upholstery would feel more Victorian.

Choosing the right materials can also help you add to the overall design of the room your couch will be in. Consider if you want natural fibers or synthetic fabrics for the upholstery. Real hard wood legs or metal? Decorative accents on the arms or a smooth, simple slipcover for the whole piece? While you may not be designing a couch from scratch, knowing your design preferences can help you on your search.

Couches & Pets

For couch-shoppers with pets (or kids) at home, durability is just as important as comfort and feel. Many people assume leather will scratch easily; however, it can actually stand up well to animal claws, spills and other accidents. Plus, there are lots of leather options to choose from: bonded leather, full leather, and vegan leather. If leather isn’t your thing, consider microfiber over natural fabrics if you have pets at home. Microfiber works well with animal claws, while the weave in many natural clothes is easy to claw through.

Common Couch Material Types

  • Ratan
  • Whicker
  • Leather
  • Silk
  • Linen
  • Leather
  • Wool
  • Cotton
  • Polyester
  • Nylon
  • Acrylic
  • Velvet
  • Metal
  • Hardwood
  • Plastic