The secret history of: The corner sofa

Karlstad. Sound familiar? If not, it will almost certainly look familiar: Ikea's sofa range has become something of a contemporary interiors institution, and if you don't own one, you probably know someone who does – it fits a corner, with add-ons making it any shape you like. The well-heeled may be familiar with the Moroccan-influenced Roche Bobois Mah Jong; a series of low, colourful modular cushions; or perhaps Antonio Citterio's new Suita.

But living room options weren't always thus. The modular sofa – often known as the corner sofa – is said to have been invented by the American designer Harvey Probber in 1944. With little formal training, and a sideline in cabaret singing, the Brooklyn-born Probber evaded the sort of fame achieved by some of his slightly older contemporaries, who included Charles and Ray Eames and George Nelson. In Probber's New York Times obituary his widow said: "He was shy; it's why he wasn't better known". According to a 1979 article in the US magazine Interior Design, his invention was "one of the most influential developments in contemporary furniture design". Yet he has long gone unrecognised.

Modular, however, went mainstream in the 1970s and G Plan, which designed early UK versions, led the way with their 1971 Duo range. "The baby boomers were earning money and saw the traditional three-piece suite as passé," explains G Plan's design director, Simon Wade. "They no longer wanted to live huddled around the fire as their parents had and began knocking through walls; the sofa became conducive to new styles of home."

Dominic Lutyens, co-author of 70s Style and Design (Thames & Hudson) explains further: "As the 1970s rolled in, traditional institutions such as the family unit were under attack, meaning more single households and a trend for one-room living; flexible sofas such as Alessandro Becchi's 1970 Anfibio, which anticipated the sofa bed, became a necessarily practical choice."

And as to the style's enduring appeal? Depressingly we may have Big Brother to thank; series six of the reality show featured a scandal-enticing Ligne Roset Togo Corner Group. Modular is the best sort of sofa on which to get horizontal, after all.