INTERIORS / Social history's bottom line: Small or big, soft or hard, a sofa is for life - and choosing the right one can present a few problems

Click to follow
UNLIKE other design gurus, who would never let a feather-filled cushion darken their doorsteps, Liz Farrelly, assistant editor of Blueprint Magazine, is regularly to be seen cruising the shops trying to buy a sofa. But the style and image challenge of this one piece have got this usually confident shopper completely floored. 'I don't know what to do. I am totally distraught,' she says. 'I go to furniture shows and see up-to- the-minute angular styles, but for me they just don't spell sofa.'

She admits that what she really wants to snuggle into is something that will take as many feather-filled cushions as possible. But then the vastness of the sofa presents practical considerations that confound her too, living as she does on the top of a Victorian house. The fault clearly lies with the concept of the sofa in itself. 'It is not a good exercise in solving a design problem. I would rather have chairs which make huge statements and then a sofa as large as a bed, big enough to lie on.'

She knows she ought to like the current hard-edged designs that the purists applaud, but, much to her dismay, her desire for comfort keeps muddying the waters.

Perhaps part of her difficulty is that sofas, like dogs, reveal so much about their owners. 'The foam ones, without any dents in at all, tell you the owner is no couch potato,' she explains. 'Leather ones are a masculine thing; they tend to remind me of doctor's surgeries. The Knowle isn't a proper piece of furniture. Only the ropes chain it together.'

But once you have a sofa you might imply that you have put down roots, settled down in Smallville. Liz Farrelly will probably stick with her futon, half-drowned in cushions and rugs, for this reason if no other. There is horror in her voice when she thinks of the responsibility and the tie that a sofa represents. 'I mean, when you leave the country you have to put it into storage.' It is as bad as a car, or a pet.

Yet the sofa has established itself with considerable force in the 20th- century home. It could even be said that it had created for itself a power base in our subconscious akin to that of the old-fashioned hearth. It is the single object upon which the image of early television breakfast programmes was pinned, and it is the podium upon which the rich and famous are photographed in their homes for in the glossy magazines.

As a student of architecture, Sally Mackereth made a study of the sofa as the symbol of coupledom in Hello] magazine, and last week she gave a talk, 'In Search Of The Sofa', at the Architectural Association.

'My research looked at the contemporary mythology of the sofa - all these characters who are in search of a sofa from which to proclaim their happiness,' she says. 'Coupledom is what everyone is looking for. En route it has been a terrible journey, but once you have reached the sofa the struggle can be talked about.' She has drawn elaborate cut- away sections, looking at how people have placed sofas in their rooms, and how they are positioned on them.

'While the chair has been taken terribly seriously and is seen as a material test of the designer's art, as glamorous and sexy, the sofa is a compromise object, representing togetherness and ordinariness.' The magazines, therefore, use the sofa to show that all these famous people are just like us, really.

Though many of us may not have been aware of it, the sofa has been there at all the key moments in our lives and probably holds more secrets than the home itself. 'It is the focus of the family. You have your first sex, your first argument, and very often you hear of family deaths, all on the sofa,' Sally says. It is no wonder, then, that the pivotal moments in many soap operas also take place upon the three-piece.

As for coupledom, the sofa is apparently where many of us relinquish our individual identity for a dual one. It comes a step short of the pram-in- the-hallway syndrome. 'It is very often the first mutual purchase that a couple make. It is an object that represents how other people see them as a couple, as a picture might,' Sally says. The whole business is so fraught it is no wonder that she doesn't own a sofa herself.' My fear is of it being a very grown-up thing. And of being swallowed up into a relationship where you are no longer seen as two people.' But she has been commissioned to design one for a couple of friends and has resolved to upholster it in many layers to reflect their relationship.

In view of the fact that the sofa didn't arrive until the mid-19th century, it has made a large impact in a short time. It evolved out of the settles and day beds and chaises longues of earlier centuries, as a pretty, overstuffed object in the Victorian parlour which every newly established middle-class couple wanted.

Only very early this century, according to Gareth Williams, in the furniture and woodwork collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, did the three-piece suite follow. 'A lot of them were designed to look grander than the rest of the room, to add luxury, often in a vaguely repro or cottage style. Some of them were colossal slumpy things.'

As the big fat brother of the chair, which has not attracted the great designers over the decades, he believes it is a piece of furniture out of time. 'It is an upholstered lump. Because it is so big, people don't require style from it.' So the sofa only made a slight nod to each generation, passing through the wide-armed cubic shapes and the cloud backs of the Thirties to the spindly stick insects of the Fifties. But the Utility furniture of the Second World War did not include a sofa - it was still considered a luxury item.

Outrageous sofas, including that designed by Salvador Dali in the shape of Marilyn Monroe's lips, were revered more as works of sculpture than as pieces of furniture. The marshmallow sofa designed by the architect George Nelson in 1956 was really more of an experiment in technology. He was the first to use foam as the raw ingredient in cushions and therefore his creation of foam lozenges on sticks broke entirely new ground. Only later was the foam incorporated into the sofa base itself.

One of the few modern designs to be admired is that produced by Jasper Morrison, who has managed to create statuesque sofas with real presence. They transcend the three- chairs-knocked-together routine; many critics, however, say that while they would love to have one in their sitting room to look at, they would not want to sit on it. The Morrison sofa is not terribly comfortable.