You may hear the words "sofa" and "couch" used interchangeably in everyday life, but is there actually a difference between the two? We spoke with a number of designers to find out. Below, the pros share what a sofa and couch have in common and also comment on how the two terms—and pieces—vary. At the end of the day, however, you should feel free to use whichever word comes most naturally to you; the terms are commonly accepted as interchangeable by most people. As designers say, though, sofa is a more formal piece primarily placed in a living room or family room, while a couch is a casual, lounge-friendly piece that belongs in the bedroom, office, or library.
Term is more commonly used in the design industry
Piece is seen as more formal
Term refers to a piece placed in a main living area or family room
Term is used more colloquially
Piece is seen as more informal and for lounging
Term refers to a piece placed in a bedroom, office, or library
The Pieces Have Varying Levels of Formality
According to Antonio Rodriguez, junior designer at RAYMOND NICOLAS, the word "sofa" is more commonly used in the interior design industry. "The word ‘couch’ is just more casual and used in specific countries like North America and South Africa, for example," he adds.
But it isn't just the word "couch" that's seen as more causal—per Susan Hayward, founder of Susan Hayward Interiors, a couch has generally been thought of as informal in use, too. “Historically a couch (or the French 'couche') was meant as a casual piece of furniture with arms for lounging," she explains. "Over the years, however, the names have become somewhat interchangeable.” So if you're worried about how you'll come across saying one of these words versus the other, don't sweat it. There are many words that some people use frequently and others use more sparingly, yet their meanings are universal. For example, as designer Bethany Adams of Bethany Adams Interiors says, "Just like in one part of the country a Coke is a 'soda' and in another it's 'pop,' the sofa/couch designation appears to be largely cultural at this point, if not regional." Still, she agrees that "sofa" is the appropriate industry term, as Rodriguez had noted.
Placement of Each Piece Varies
If you're wondering whether sofas and couches should be styled interchangeably, designer Kristen Rivoli of Kristen Rivoli Interior Design weighs in with some advice. "You would generally use a sofa in a main living area or family room where you're sitting with a group of people," she notes. "A couch would be used in a bedroom, office or library where you'd like to lounge, read a book or sit less formally, usually alone and not in a group setting." It isn't a surprise that couches are generally tucked away. After all, as Rick Lovegrove, President of Upholstery at Four Hands points out, the French term "coucher" literally means to lay down and sleep.
Overall, though, it's safe to say that no one will question you if you use these words interchangeably, particularly if you are speaking to an individual outside the design industry.
Determining Which Piece is Right for You
Determining whether a sofa or couch is most suitable for you simply depends on the type of space you are furnishing. A sofa is best for a formal living room while a couch is ideal for the basement or playroom. Note that when you are shopping online, retailers may still use these terms differently than how the designers above do, so it will be helpful to search both words to ensure that you don't miss out on any fabulous finds that may have been labeled one way and not the other.