Reupholstering Old Sofas to Look More Modern

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Give an old sofa new life with modern upholstery.
Give an old sofa new life with modern upholstery. (Image: Ryan McVay/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

Interior fashions evolve over time just as apparel does. Even with a sofa based on a classic shape, designers interpret the style differently with each new release -- which means your sofa won’t look modern even if it’s in perfect condition. But, if your frame is still sturdy and your springs are intact, you can update your sofa by reupholstering.

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Fashion-Forward Fabric

Solid colors are the most versatile, but solid doesn’t have to mean boring. Opt for a bold color, a compelling texture or both. Textured solids include boucle, velvet, chenille, mohair, tweed and linen. Though woven from more than one color, tweed reads visually as a solid. Even flat-woven neutrals look exciting in the right space, especially if you accent them with colorful throw pillows. If you prefer patterns, modern options include bold stripes, vivid flame stitches, exotic ikats and crisp geometrics, such as trellis and labyrinth patterns.

Designer Details

Quality construction isn’t the only reason high-end sofas cost more; you also pay for the customizable details. When you reupholster, you have those same options. Emphasize a striking sofa shape with contrasting welt -- which is the covered cording -- or nailhead trim installed along the seam and attachment lines. Applique mitered, ribbonlike borders onto box cushions. Use a different fabric for the cushions or a center inset. If your sofa has a tight back, add vertical channeling or square-shaped biscuit tufting. If you have a tuxedo sofa or a track-arm version with box cushions, skip the square throw pillows in favor of tube-shaped bolsters placed against the arms.

Skirt Styling

With older sofas, the skirt lengths are frequently shorter than on newer versions. They’re still floor length, but the skirt’s top sits lower on the sofa. Lengthen the skirt to modernize the look. Switching the skirt style helps to update the sofa, too. If your sofa has that ubiquitous kick-pleated skirt, switch to box pleats or a slipcover-style waterfall skirt that falls straight from the seating deck. For the most modern look, skip the skirt completely and opt for a clean-lined upholstered base. Then, refinish the exposed feet or replace them.

Softer Seats

Today’s sofas have softer, thicker seat cushions than yesteryear’s versions. Even if yours started out plump, they’re probably compressed from years of sitting. Before making new covers for the seats, invest in new cushion inserts. Thicker cushions look more modern, and they feel better, too. Thicker cushions also raise the seat height, which aids in updating the look; older sofas frequently sit lower to the ground than newly constructed upholstery. If your sofa has back cushions, replace those inserts as well. Since you’re reupholstering, you can even switch from a three-cushion sofa to a two-seat version.

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