INTERIORS: TAKE ONE MODERN SOFA...

... cover it in a variety of fabrics and watch it blend into four very different lifestyles. Kate Worsley visits the ultra-contemporary `Gaudi' in residence to see how it has shaped up to expectations
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The Independent Culture
WATCH THE YOUNG couple on the Tottenham Court Road trail in search of a bed. One ducks down to give it a quick press, the other walks around it with a silly smile. It gives them a warm feeling.

The couple in search of a sofa is something else. Both parties will sit on it happily, cosy into a corner when no one's looking. Quite often, though, they will loll at either end and tap their fingers, a grim tableau of a bored future stuck on Couple Island. This feeling is rather more chilling.

For this is the secret fear that haunts all first-time, sofa-buying couples. Behind all the blissful minglings of tastes - "You want dark blue too? Oh, I've always longed for a Knole", beyond the immediate prospect of cosy evenings in together and rowdy nights at home with friends, the worry is that they will get beached on the kind of bouncy castle that provided so much childhood fun.

John Ash has the answer. "This sofa is aimed at the younger market," he grins. "It's for people who want something a little bit different, on a bit of a budget." Tousled and tanned and 50, he is an ageing beach- bum, surfing the wave of demand for a sofa that won't turn you into your parents. John had his own company once, but is now working his way out of bankruptcy designing for Sofas and Sofa Beds.

The Gaudi, from his new "modern" range nam-ed after various artists, is covered in bleached bone calico, and gleams like a pearl among the more familiar curvy, podgy sofas in the chain's Tottenham Court Road showroom. Like any other anonymous "modern" sofa, it gives nothing away, its single quirk being the way one arm is lower, like a chaise longue. But it's cute, not too big, comes in a range of covers and fillings and slips in easily at well under pounds 1,000.

We asked four sets of buyers to show us what they'd done with their Gaudis. It proved a very accommodating people-carrier, its roles ranging from client teaser, party lounger and World Cup host to kiddie receptacle. All four owners said that they had wanted something "a bit different"; no chintz or leather-clad suburban nightmares for them. But when it comes to modern, urban "good taste", just how different can "a bit" really be?

SIMON CRAWLEY AND CATHY BURNS

Simon Crawley and Cathy Burns' sofa said something about them before it was even delivered. Simon used its purple-velvet-clad form in a trade paper puff for their media graphics company, newly launched from a Soho mews; the sofa now dominates the reception area. The enterprise, like the sofa, was to be theatrical, decadent, like something from a Peter Greenaway film. Crimson Post Production launched in July as one of those impossible-to-pin-down, shape-shifting organisations, its feelers constantly out, testing the Zeitgeist. "Like an octopus," grins Simon, fingers waving.

Enthusiasm eddies around our heads as Simon, 29, and Cathy, 31, shower each other with compliments - "she's got amazing eyes", "he's really creative". They recently married in Las Vegas in a wild moment. "No point waiting about, is there?"

Cathy is the business brains. She got the Gaudi at 20 per cent off, and a purple carpet to match from Allied Carpets. "Our sofa at home is a squishy one, but we don't see why a domestic item can't be elegant." The lush, royal-purple velvet they chose gives the sofa the feel of a cocktail- bar banquette. It now hosts all of their work, rest and play. "We wanted something intimate, where we could sit and chat," explains Simon, "somewhere comfortable - yes, like this."

And yet, they add, no one else sits on this sofa, at least not for long. "Nobody dares to," says Cathy, glancing at Simon. "We think that maybe it intimidates them."

CARINE AND GERRY BRANNAN

Carine and Gerry Brannan's smart, three-storey home in the rose-and-creosote- scented suburb of Kingston is a veritable graveyard of sofas past their best. Submerged in the gloom of the large front room, alongside the inherited wooden dining set, sits a curvy, faded chintz number, from their first flat together. "It took 18 months to choose. It was very hard to get Gerry to spend money on something like that." They got the fabric in a Designers Guild sale. The second is a huge, murky-green tank of a sofa. "I never sat on it," says Carine, 39. "Always on the floor in front." Its barrelled arms are stained with years of abuse at the hands of Alisdair and Fraser Brannan, now four and six. "Boys make dens, you know. They were always getting the cushions off."

The Gaudi lives in a brand-new extension at the back, used as an all- round family room. A huge skylight and myriad halogen spots illuminate it: pre-emptive loose arm covers in place, cushion-free, and covered in a textured Regency stripe.

Carine did an art history course at Kingston and she now works part-time for a local optician. "Can I ask, what did the other people you've seen do with their sofas?" she enquires, casually offhand. "Purple velvet, really?" She looks wistful.

Management consultant Gerry, 43, comes down from his office upstairs. He liked the Gaudi from the minute he saw it in the shop. "It was all creamy white, and gave out this sense of luxury, clean lines," he says, with the domesticated man's yearning for relief from chaos. "It's not the same now it's covered in this fabric," he adds, turning to Carine. "We did have a choice of fabrics." They give each other one of those impenetrable couple gazes.

It was a canny move on the part of John Ash to display the Gaudi prototype in its plain calico cover. All four couples loved its unattainable iceberg gleam, and have incorporated its echo in their own vision, like the rustle of tissue that lingers on an expensive dress. But reality has a way of taking over. This is, after all, the territory that most of us inhabit.

GARY AND JACQUI MAPLESTONE

Gary and Jacqui Maplestone were teenage sweethearts. "We both went to college late and only just managed to recover from it," says Gary, 32. "We did two years' travelling, then college, and moved here in March last year. Been burgled already."

They live on the top floor of a converted dental students' residence in Bethnal Green. Beech flooring and industrial kitchen units replaced brown carpets and magnolia walls, and the sitting-room is Dolly Mixture kitsch. Two Gaudis in contrasting shades sit opposite each other. Both have a sprinkling of gaudy fake-fur cushions. They have serviced frequent parties, but are surviving well.

"I think my dad's going to see this place and get worried about my sexuality," says Gary, 32 spluttering slightly on his beer. "Our friends love it, though," says Jacqui, 30. "We've got lots of gay friends. We go out to clubs like Trade a lot - you can go as a couple and not look like you're on the pull."

Gary, who is a computer programmer and very excited about going to New York for work next week, displays a magpie glee about their flashier pickings, like the UV-circled, wall-mounted telephone. "We saw it on Corrie and just had to have it." Jacqui is a mental health nurse. "I used to see a lot of my patients wandering about round here, till I moved hospitals." For the first time in their lives they have some money. Together they dream of the outrageous orange sofa they saw in Camden Market, or the huge pink one from Purves & Purves. "But we didn't want anything really different, because the cost goes up, doesn't it?" says Gary sensibly.

ANNIKA ANDORSSON AND GUY RAVEN

Designer Annika Andorsson, 28, with her razored hair and slender arms, is definitely Wallpaper material. "I'm Swedish," she shrugs, "and I don't get over excited by that Wallpaper look. I like things a bit more quirky," she says with a shrug. She met Guy Raven, 27, studying fashion at Ravensbourne in the early 1990s, and now she designs women's wear for Coast and he freelances in bags and accessories. After three years' renting, they bought a flat in a boxy 1950s block by Clapham Junction last year and have already laid the Nineties estate agents' favourite, beech and limestone floors.

"Anyway, it goes with the style of the building, that Le Corbusier thing," says Guy. He knows what he wants in design terms. "If I had my way this place would look like a showroom. Put something away and it stays away." His favourite possession is his huge steel fridge. "Filling it at the weekend is the best bit." There are colour swatches on the walls, copper-coloured Venetian blinds, and a fake-copper-topped table-cum-breakfast-bar (cum wine rack) that turns out to have been ripped off from Habitat. "We just went in and measured it up," says Annika. "The stools are from Habitat though." We perch on them, drinking Vimto from big frosted beakers.

Annika's favourite piece is the Gaudi. Plainly covered in a slightly fading corally pink, it softens the place up a bit. "I like the shape of it. The fact that it's a bit different." No surprises there. They watch TV on it mostly. "The low end is Guy's, but it's more because I'm not quick enough to get in there," says Annika.

"We're definitely very pleased that we made this choice," says Guy, swinging his legs about like five-bar gates. "Yes," adds Annika, "I'm glad we didn't go for some traditional thing."

This urge to wipe out the old and set up house along progressive but not transgressive lines is reminiscent of Bob and Thelma fitting out their new semi in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? Except these days, Bob's anal retentiveness has been transferred to home furnishings. The Gaudi- owners' tastes seem remarkably consistent in their essentials. And they are not alone.

Moving in together for Bob and Thelma meant doing it all on the HP, taking a brave step into a new world. But for today's couples, the entire young person's package is already out there. The acquisition of these props of modern coupledom - beech floors, cool sofas, quirky lamps - has been concentrated by ease of access, credit cards and a general taste consensus into a quick trawl round Tottenham Court Road and the markets. Even 15 years ago, these couples would have been stripping floors and walls in Hackney or Streatham, painting their walls violent colours to the last strains of a punk sensibility.

But now it is in no sense a crime to be tasteful, and the urge to be "a bit different" seems to be universal. If you're old enough to remember when you had to make do and DIY, today's uniformity may cause a bit of a pang. But easy come does not mean easy go. Remember that if you live together for long enough, yesterday's style choices, however tasteful, sensible or exciting at the time, will come to tug at your heels like weeds. !

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