INTERIORS / Better the sofa you know ..: It can cost as much as a second-hand car, but few buyers stop to ask how it is sprung or whether it is stuffed with curl, duck or down. Caroline McGhie offers a user's guide and, overleaf, a social history

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The Independent Culture
IT IS a normal weekday in the Conran Shop. Oysters are selling on the stalls outside, smooth bespectacled men in loose suits lounge among the cocoon-shaped lampshades. Sofas and tables are spaced out like museum pieces across the shop floor. The film-set atmosphere shrivels all but the most acute critical faculties.

In search of a sofa I plump down on to the Burnham, an uncomplicated piece with a straight back that curves round into the arms, slightly boxy to look at. The price-tag reads pounds 1,519.75. The cost of it means it shouldn't be a casual purchase. But most buyers would probably lounge on it a bit, try to behave as urbanely as everyone else in the shop, and buy it on grounds of taste. Though the price of it is similar to that of a second-hand car, they wouldn't consider the equivalent procedure of looking under the bonnet.

Most buyers in the Conran Shop probably know more about varieties of bottled waters and olive oils than they do about this massively expensive item when they buy it. Because the sofa is not macho or chic or boundary-breaking, few people make it their business to find out what lies underneath the cover.

Pummelling the cushions and sticking my hands down the back of a sofa soon brings a shop assistant over. 'How is this made?' I ask. 'Is it coil sprung, and what are the cushions stuffed with?'

You might expect a sofa costing more than pounds 1,000 to be coil sprung, its cushions filled with soft duck and down. Cheaper varieties come with flatter serpentine springs and foam upholstery. This one is box sprung (in terms of quality between the two), its cushions stuffed with curled poultry feathers (for the hierarchy of stuffings, see box on page 68). The design element and the fabric will bump up the price here, though.

'Why are you asking all these questions?' says the shop assistant. 'Why do you want to know?' She shrugs her shoulders and walks away when I explain that, if I'm buying a sofa, I want to know how it's made.

Questions about another model, the Georgia, priced at pounds 1,226 with the fabric, elicits an even more bizarre response. 'All I know is that it is the highest level of upholstery bar horsehair and cotton wool.' Eh? Didn't horsehair go out years ago? Cotton wool? The film set all of a sudden is beginning to look more Monty Python than Manhattan.

Many other shops are the same. No matter how large or small, it seems that the sales assistants know very little about what they are selling, and customers therefore find out little about what they are buying. Research carried out by Neil Brown and Ian MacGuffog, joint directors of sofa companies Recline & Sprawl and Highly Sprung, has exposed a more worrying problem.

In an exercise that has proved as strong in its public relations potential as in its commercial sense, the partners have been disembowelling sofas. Over the years they have bought sofas from other companies and opened up their insides to see what their rivals were up to; they have re-upholstered others, old and new, that have been in need of

attention. Their work has led them to believe that manufacturers are sometimes disingenuous in their claims about the construction, springing and stuffing of sofas, and also about the amount of fabric needed to cover them.

They found that one sofabed (bought for pounds 1,039), said to be stuffed with duck feathers, was in fact stuffed with inferior chicken feathers. The manufacturers claimed that 16m of fabric were needed to cover it, whereas MacGuffog and Brown put their estimate at only 13m. They also observe that sofabeds are cheaper to manufacture than sofas, but that most shops charge around pounds 100 to pounds 200 more for something that can convert to a bed.

The post-mortem examination on another sofa, priced at pounds 1,580 and with sales literature that claimed coil springing, unearthed webbing on a chipboard frame. MacGuffog and Brown estimate the actual value of the materials on this carcass, which still lies in their workshop for all to see, to be only pounds 171.

'We don't want to be seen as Minnie Moan-a-lot,' says Brown, 'but this is a high value item and retailers have allowed their prices to creep right up. The point about fabric is important because if a client is six metres adrift on fabric which may cost pounds 35 per metre, then he is losing a lot of money on the transaction.'

Consumers have simply got used to the high prices, Brown adds. 'They expect to pay at least pounds 1,000 because they think that is what they should be paying. But they may find the cushions have been filled with nothing but chicken bum fluff.'

Admittedly, Recline & Sprawl and Highly Sprung are waging a price war against existing sofa manufacturers. They make their own sofas in workshops at High Wycombe and sell direct through their shops in London. Without the middle man they can afford to charge a lower price and they have nothing to lose by exposing the chicanery of others.

At their workshops you can see the craftsmanship involved in making a traditional sofa. The seamstresses are bent at their machines overlapping every seam, the feather and down is graded to go into the cushions in a ratio of 80 per cent to 20 per cent, and the carpenters are individually constructing each skeleton, laboriously screwing and dowelling rather than using a staple gun.

The upholsterers then install the deep coil springs, and layer with rubberised hair, cotton felt, Dacron, and calico to make the more expensive sofas. The cheaper end of the market gets flat horizontal serpentine springs, covered with webbing, foam and fabric.

But in the high street the distinctions between the two become blurred. In Tottenham Court Road, fondly known as the front line of sofa warfare, where Heal's, Sofa Workshop, Sofas & Sofa-Beds, Maples, Habitat, World of Leather and Delcor Furniture battle it out, the whole matter is complicated by the large number of discounts and interest-free credit deals on offer. Until their claims are queried, many shops also maintain that their cushions are stuffed with duck feathers.

In Multiyork in Chelsea, where style is supposed to count more than affordability, one salesman did what he called his princess-and-the-pea test, perching on the edge of a sofa to see if he could feel the springs. This particular three-piece suite was reduced from pounds 5,271 to pounds 3,195, so much depended on the outcome of his solemn experiment. The cushions, he said, were definitely filled with duck. Then: 'Actually, no. It might be our very own chicken feathers.'

There are branches of Recline &

Sprawl and Highly Sprung at 310

Battersea Park Road, London SW11;

185-186 Tottenham Court Road,

London W1; 604 King's Road, London SW6; and at 12 Oakridge Road, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.