The sofa was enormous. The gray tweed Jonathan Adler sectional was heavily tufted and two people deep. When assembled in my living room in San Francisco, it was the size of a Buick and presented about 30 square feet of surface area.
In the foyer, a narrow 25-year-old Knoll sofa lay on its back—decor roadkill—legs up and spilling out its pillows: two large pale-pink Mongolian-lamb squares; four small gray velvet cubes; two new baby-sized circles from CB2; a single, cross-stitched rectangle whose primary purpose had been to cover 14 years of dog naps. I scooped them all up, dealt them around the new L-shape like cards, and stepped back. I karate-chopped the large fluffy ones like I’d learned from Designing Women and stepped back again. Done.
Later that night I walked into a party for Dolce & Gabbana. I felt pretty good, what with a new mega-sectional that etched another notch on my midcentury bedpost. I collapsed with an exhale into a sofa belonging to interior designer Ken Fulk. Under the 57-foot-high ceiling of a deconsecrated church turned private club, Fulk’s tasseled blue velvet sofa stretched nearly the width of the nave and was dotted by enlarged pillows rendered in Braquenié Le Grand Corail cotton. Pairs of canoodling pillows, the one in front slightly smaller than the big spoon behind, precisely thirded the couch. Obviously planned, yet the fluffing dimples indicated a bit of fabulous haphazardry. In the middle, a pillow the color of saffron and the size of my television divided the hemispheres and seemed to mark the VIP section. It also held Domenico Dolce in place, comfortably sitting but, aided by the yellow cushion, not descending into the aquamarine abyss.
My private celebration came to a screeching halt. Pillow envy. It was time to ask for help.
“PILLOWS!” Michelle Nussbaumer shouted into her phone while driving through a tunnel in Switzerland. “People underestimate how complicated they can be! They are the high heels and Birkin bags of the sofa. They can make a common sofa look spectacular.” Nussbaumer, who splits her time between Gstaad and Dallas, made her name as a crowded-couch maximalist in Dallas some 20 years ago. She’s also, one of her clients had told me, something of a pillow whisperer. “This is embarrassing to admit,” the client, who works in advertising, said, “but pillows are really hard to get right. But once you know, you know.”
Who knew sofa accessories were such a minefield? All my life, I’d looked upon pillows as, say, a gray hooded sweatshirt— sturdy and reliable, always up for a hug or a Netflix binge. And yet Nussbaumer sees It bags and Oscar-night clutches.
I told her I was headed out to buy new ones immediately. There was a pregnant pause of pachyderm-gestation proportions. “You can’t just go to the store and throw some things on and be done!” she admonished, as if I’d cracked open a Tab at the philharmonic. “I do the pillows when I do the room.” They should—if you’re not following along—not come last. “You want them to go with your decor.”
Nussbaumer generally custom-makes pillows for clients—stuffed with fake down because she’s a vegetarian and it’s softer anyway—in a mix of fabrics (antique fez, modern chintz) that she acquires around the world, from Morocco to London. It’s London and only London where she might deign to buy a pillow. “From Robert Kline. He uses old fabrics.” Nussbaumer then plays with proportions, conjuring up pillows of various shapes in various textures that tend to come together in a warm froth of conspicuous acquisition. (Depending on the client the result is somewhere between Jeannie’s bottle and Cher’s beach house.) “That’s what looks luxurious now. All those words. Curated. Collected.”
Once you have your pillows (store-bought or not), then it’s a matter of where to place them. By Nussbaumer’s estimation, you could do the polite, sophisticated thing: two pillows on each end, next to each other. “I mean, that’s... fine,” the 62-year-old said in a way that made it clear it’s really not fine. “But, of course, that looks catalog-y.”
She has other don’ts. “First of all, when there are so many pillows on a sofa that you can’t sit down, that’s stressful!” she said. “Guests don’t know what to do. If you move the pillow...where do you put it? You don’t want to offend them. You’re stuck, perching on the end of the sofa.” (The only thing worse? “No pillows.”)
“People forget that these things are actually useful,” Nussbaumer said. “They’re put to work, ergonomically to the sofa and people. It can go under your arm when you’re reading the paper. Under your head for a nap. There’s a reason the pillow exists.”
Then, she said, watch out for scale. “You can’t have a pillow that sticks out above the back of the sofa. You don’t want people walking in and seeing pillow ears sticking up off the sofa.” And texture. “Like, a leather pillow, which is super uncomfortable. Or some giant fur pillow and the next thing you know you have fur in your mouth. That sort of thing probably looks great, in Aspen or something.”
“Bottom line,” she said, “for the pillow novice, think of that English thing, where it’s obvious you didn’t buy the pillows to match the sofa. That they look like they were acquired over time. Or, just buy one long pillow for the middle.” She paused. “With fringe on it.”
My head spun as I hung up the phone. I looked at the Mongolian lamb next to the cheap velvet. I started looking online (which Nussbaumer had expressly told me not to do). A friend had suggested De Le Cuona, an English company known for its textiles and custom pillows, which can reach $1,750 for a 20-inch cashmere square. I contacted the founder, the South African–born Bernie de Le Cuona. Her recommendation—besides “throw them all over the sofa and take one away”—was also to do a long pillow. De Le Cuona suggested her 36-by-16-inch sofa pillow in silk velvet with tough leather buckles clutching the plush corners. She sent a photo.
Drunk on pillow talk, I returned to my sofa. I looked at the unedited mix of pillows. I could only see cheap shoes and fake Birkins. I gathered them up and put them back on the Knoll corpse. I sat down to make a phone call and rolled straight back. Teetering on the edge, I dialed the design gallery Future Perfect down the street, and realized that it is nice to rest your arm on a pillow.
A week later, Adam Pogue’s one-of-a-kind long rectangle arrived from the gallery—made from vintage textiles, of course. After holding the $700 creation up toward the sun like Rafiki holding up Simba, I placed it right in the middle of the L, marking a VIP section for one. And then karate-chopped the center.