A Brief — and Surprisingly Interesting — History of the Living Room Sofa
Sofas have been around since ancient Egyptian and Greek times, but pharaohs and upper crust Athenians weren’t lounging on anything close to today’s tufted sectionals with chaise storage. “Couches” consisted of sturdy wooden benches and continued as such well into the 16th century. In fact, the sofa was really something to perch on — not lounge on — until the 1680s, when the first padded chair came to Versailles, inspiring the court to take a load off.
Rigid canapés were the first chairs intended to seat more than one person, but they quickly morphed into something that offered more cushioning. These pieces weren’t just plush spots to kick back though; their arrival marked the dawn of a whole new era. Prior to the creation of the sofa similar to the one we know now, furniture was strictly utilitarian, keeping your body posture rigid and mostly upright, even during downtime. According to Joan DeJean, author of “The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual — and the Modern Home Began,” the evolution of seating from purely pragmatic to comfortable heralded maybe the earliest iteration of a casual private life. “We can’t know if the French men and women who stretched out on the original sofas in the late 17th and early 18th centuries were comfortable according to today’s standards,” says DeJean. “But from the evidence provided by contemporary images and accounts, they were very comfortable by their own standards. They loved their sofas and other new types of comfortable seating because they saw them as giving a new ease to daily life.”
According to DeJean, the same decade the sofa debuted, people began to read for pleasure, cotton textiles became widely available, and the first concept of “casual dress” hit the scene. Enlightenment philosophers began to explore “the art of living” for the first time; lifestyles were changing — and quickly at that. For some though, this lack of formality meant things were unraveling at the seams. According to DeJean, members of the court slouched on seats, draped arms over the backs of sofas, and curled their legs. Who got to sit and who had to stand was strictly regulated to uphold invisible hierarchies, but interestingly enough, DeJean says this all changed once cushions were introduced.
DeJean notes that four years after the sofa made its debut, the king’s sister-in-law sent a letter to her cousins, writing that “protocol and etiquette were completely done away with.” She continued: “In the salon, anyone, even the lowliest officer, was … stretched out full-length on sofas. The very sight of it all disgusted me.” What this appalled royal didn’t realize though was that this relaxed body posture helped to create a new, more “effortless” elite identity as performed through leisure. According to Mimi Hellman, author of the journal article “Furniture, Sociability, and the Work of Leisure in Eighteenth-Century France,” rules for sitting on certain sofas existed, outlining what kind of slouch or stretch was most visually pleasing. Sofa-sitting was a performance, and if you interacted with the furniture incorrectly, you’d effectively be presenting yourself as “common.”
Regardless, sofas soon took off, making their way across Europe and over the Atlantic. French brands and craftspeople introduced chaise lounges, the canapé, settees, and loveseats — the last of which wasn’t intended for cuddling couples, but to accommodate the broad skirts of 17th century women. In Britain, Lord Philip Stanhope, the fourth Earl of Chesterfield, had an eagle eye for fashion and wanted a chair where impeccably dressed guests could sit comfortably while maintaining their posture and poise. The Chesterfield sofa was soon commissioned. “It looks comfortable, although still in a formal-ish way,” says Mark Hinchman, an interior design professor at the University of Nebraska’s College of Architecture. “One wouldn’t flop on it like one does now while watching the TV. The general perception is that English furniture was more comfortable than French furniture, and for the 18th century, the Chesterfield seems to confirm that. Sherlock Holmes seemed to use it in an informal way.”
The Sofa in the U.S.
American furniture began to change in the late 17th century as well, thanks to the emergence of the colonial upper class. With wealth came leisure, and furniture changed to accommodate this new “leisured behavior.” Again, while pieces became softer, comfort still had a different definition than today. According to Bill Bryson, author of “At Home: A Short History of Private Life,” being comfy at home was still such a foreign concept that no word even existed for it. “Comfortable” meant “capable of being consoled,” as opposed to “sinking into something plush.” That all shifted though with the creation of the middle class. “This was the change that made the modern world,” writes Bryson, because it increased widespread demand for things. Mirrors, carpets, dining tables, wardrobes — and most importantly, sofas. Demand increased, mass production was born, and furniture makers began churning out simple pieces cut from templates.
Entertaining also changed in the Victorian era, which in turn affected sofa design and style. Prior to this era, when one had visitors, drawing room chairs were arranged in a formal circle, which made the flow of conversation feel stiff and staged. “What would I have done in my little drawing-room with the regulation six drawing-room chairs?” asked a writer for a Welsh newspaper in 1894. She couldn’t bear sitting in them herself, so imagine how it would look at a party if she comfortably lounged in her “easy chair” and had her “visitors sitting up stiff and uncomfortable all round me in the suits.” The solution? A comfortable couch.
The parlor became the heart of the home, and the “corner of the sofa” became the “heart of the heart.” Settees, such as the camel back sofa, began to pop up in every home, which featured flared arms and curved, “humped” backs. When Victorians had larger gatherings, they would push two couches together, effectively creating something of a primitive sectional. These furnishings were comfortable for their standards, but today, many people probably wouldn’t want to cuddle up on them.
The Rise of the Davenport and Sectional
As sit-down culture evolved, so did the sofa. With the introduction of affordable “Davenport” designs in the 1910s, couches became a staple, slowly transforming parlors into living rooms. The modern eye may notice the davenport is the closest thing to today’s comfy sofa, and these pieces were so popular, people began calling sofas “davenports,” kind of like how hot tub is interchangeable with jacuzzi. The davenports at the time had removable cushions, springs under the seats, and plush padding you could sink right into.
The sectional tip-toed its way into the 1930s, when designer Russel Wright launched a style in his “Modern Living” furniture line to answer the needs of apartment dwellers. This three-piece design had huge space-saving possibilities because it was modular, allowing it to be arranged and re-arranged, no matter the square footage of your living room. “He thinks it’s a dreadful thought that one gets a beautiful array of furniture all ready for an apartment, or a house, and if it happens that all of a sudden one has to hide away from there, all the lovely furniture won’t fit into the next abode! He designs it therefore so that it will fit anywhere,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on Wright’s early sectional in 1935. “Sections can be added to, or taken away, so that it saves space in a small apartment, or expands in larger rooms … What a boon to those of us who do not expect to live forever in one place!”
With Wright’s design, you could create a love seat out of the two end pieces and a foyer seat or “fireside bench” with the center section. Some styles were rectangular, similar to what you’d see in stores today, and others were circular, coming in four pieces. “The ‘old’ approach emphasized novelty of design — eye appeal,” wrote the The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “He wants modern furniture to make indoor living more comfortable.”
Conversation Pits and Mid-Century Modern Designs
In the mid-1950s, conversation pits debuted. These sunken living rooms created an intimate setting to gather around and fit seamlessly into the postwar split-level home. According to Time in 1963, the conversation pit created an intentional space to retreat to, whether that was during parties or while cozying up with family. “There, while others went about frivolously at ground level, the more serious-minded could step down to form a sort of basement discussion group,” the Time article noted. “Non-talkative families tucked pillows and blankets into it, calling it a rest area.”
Not everyone took the conversation pit seriously though. Time joked that guests who indulged in a few too many cocktails during parties would trip into the pit, like a boobie trap. Those that sat in it — trying to engage in philosophical conversation — could become distracted by pant cuffs and stiletto heels passing by at eye level. The pit eventually lost its appeal at about the same time the social change of the 1960s began to start, though you can still find this feature in time capsule houses, and contemporary iterations exist, too.
Sofas throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s largely went back to being freestanding versus part of a home’s architecture, though you could certainly find wooden platform styles and designs with built-in tables during the mid-century era. Several iconic sofa styles were released during this period, from Jean Royère Polar Bear to Lignet Roset’s Togo, designs still sought after today. New materials made sofas in every shade of the rainbow popular, and different types of fabric allowed for even more customization. In general, silhouettes started as streamlined in this period, but began to get slouchier by the time the ‘70s rolled around. It’s not a total exaggeration to suggest that designer sofas, alongside brand-name appliances and high-end building materials, started to become something of a status symbol in the home during this era, too, and still continues to be, at least to some extent, now.
The Rise of the “Shabby Chic” Couch
Sofas became increasingly casual and comfortable in the mid-nineties, when the slipcovered, ruffled, and unabashedly rumpled “shabby chic” couch hit the mainstream as a direct backlash against the showboating ‘80s. “In the 1980s, people looked at their rooms as stage settings,” a designer named Elaine North told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in 1996. “They wanted to spend as much money as they could, and they would gild the room to the last detail. They didn’t care if it was a comfortable environment because all they were going to do was parade their friends through it like a museum.” In the ‘90s, North said people wanted to feel more comfortable in their rooms because they were spending actual time there. They would come home, kick off their shoes, turn on their TVs.
Rachel Ashwell, who got her start as a period movie designer, introduced the “shabby chic” look in 1988, which generally favored romantic, dramatically slouchy, slipcovered sofas that looked oh so inviting. Shabby chic-style slipcovers, of course, weren’t the only variety of cover available, but in general, these newer couch protectors blended well with the laid-back ‘90s ethos. More importantly, their use marked a more home fashion-forward departure from the plastic sofa covers sometimes employed to keep investment pieces in pristine conditions. “They make a traditional room more contemporary and give people a way to change a look without throwing away what they already have,” designer Vincente Wolf said about decorative slipcovers to the Associated Press in 1992. Clearly, these covers have stuck around for their practicality, performance, and style prowess.
Even though the frills and flourishes of the “shabby chic” aesthetic have mostly passed, with many people favoring more mid-century modern-inspired, clean-lined sofas and sectionals at the moment, the overstuffed fill has persisted, mainly because people are doing way more on their couches than ever before. A sofa’s not only the place many entertain and relax, but it’s also now a place to eat, work from home, marathon Netflix, and nap. Fabrics are increasingly durable or treated with special stain resistant coverings to accommodate spaghetti sauce or red wine drips, sticky kid fingers, and pets with dirty paws.
Sofas are so embedded in peoples’ personal lives that they have become bigger and more comfortable to adapt to lounging as a kind of sport — just look at the rise of Restoration Hardware’s Cloud Sofa over the past decade. Designs are more multi-functional, too, whether they incorporate a pull-out bed or provide hidden storage within their frames. The sofa reflects the time it’s in, and right now, this piece of furniture is all about carving out a cozy refuge in this often overwhelming world.
This piece is part of Throwback Month, where we’re revisiting vintage styles, homes, and all kinds of groovy, retro home ideas. Boogie on over here to read more!