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Accent chairs that stand for more than sitting

For designer Betsy Stires, accent chairs are a decorating treat. They’re mobile pieces, easy to move from room to room, and one of the quickest ways to spruce up a dull space and express personal style. They add flair.

“If a room were an outfit, the accent chairs would be the jewelry,” said Stires, who owns an interior design firm in Old Town Alexandria, Va., called Frog Hill Designs. “It’s the spark. It pops from the rest of the palette but also ties it all together.”

Traditionally, accent chairs are intended to be used only when extra seating becomes necessary, so they tend to be equal parts functional and decorative. That makes them a fun piece to shop for and a great way to experiment with color and texture. But they also can have deceptively large footprints, particularly those that rock or recline. In apartments and condos where space is precious, finding one that’s stylish, comfortable and lean can feel impossible. But it isn’t.

“Accent chairs add so much flavor and character to a room, sometimes you only need one to do something big,” Stires said. “It can make a statement.”

Stires, 52, recently moved from a large home in Great Falls, Va., to a 2,300-square-foot Alexandria apartment. Her new home is still large for an apartment, so the downsizing wasn’t terribly dramatic, but accent chairs and poufs have been vital for when guests come over, she said. “If you only have room for one big upholstered piece, you have to get creative.”

The first step to shopping for accent chairs is determining your spatial constraints. Lisa Scroggins, the retail market manager of Room & Board in Washington, said those in small spaces should look for chairs that fall between 25 to 32 inches wide. And although the market is flooded with vastly oversized armchairs, the standard seat depth hovers around a generous 20 to 22 inches.

The next step is to figure out what purpose the chair will serve. Is it purely a statement piece that will be pulled out twice a year for parties? Or will friends use it every week when they come over to watch the game? More recreational chairs should be durable, so shop for fabrics such as leather and canvas. Chairs destined for life in the hallway can be more artsy; think of them like practical sculptures you can sit on when you get in a pinch.

Erin Raines, a designer in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, said that living-room seating arrangement is a predicament for the majority of her clients at Space 3 Interiors.

“Needless to say, I’ve done a lot of research on small accent chairs,” she said.

She has a few go-to chairs for problem-solving. West Elm’s Button Slipper Chair ($399) measures 25 inches wide and straddles vintage and modern design, “so it works with a variety of decor styles,” she said. Room and Board’s Celeste Swivel Chair ($749) is a client favorite, and because it’s low to the ground, it can visually open or close a seating area depending on which direction it faces. Ikea’s Poang chair ($69-$149) is far and away the “household staple,” she said, because it’s affordable, comfortable and lightweight.

Raines suggested a money-saving design hack: ordering custom slipcovers from Bemz, an online shop that sells covers specifically measured to fit Ikea products. “It’s the easiest way to give your furniture an upgrade,” she said.

Comfort is often the No. 1 priority when young people shop for seating, which explains why L-shaped couches and big, cozy recliners are post-college staples. But they’re not practical choices for those renting less than 1,000 square feet. To that end, many manufacturers and retailers offer furniture lines geared toward city-dwellers.

Even La-Z-Boy loyalists have hope. Shortly after the recession, the Michigan-based company updated its catalog to offer sleeker pieces for urbanites. The Midtown Recliner ($849) measures just 33 inches wide and 21 inches deep, and trades the traditional chair’s pillowlike silhouette for clean, straight lines. And for those willing to splurge, higher-end retailers such as Design Within Reach and Thos. Moser make slender, modern lounge seating (such as Thos. Moser’s Ellipse chair, $2,475, and ottoman, $675, in cherry).

Of course, creative seating solutions don’t have to come in the form of accent chairs. Poufs, ottomans and benches can double as extra seating. Many offer hidden storage and even have wheels to make them easily mobile. Stires has a clover-shaped George Smith pouf in her living room that’s on wheels so she can shuffle it around as needed. Scroggins said customers often piggyback benches up against the back of a sofa and pull them around when guests come over. Says Scroggins: “If you shop right, one piece can do the work of three.”