Couch. Sofa. Settee. Divan. Chaise lounge. That island of repose floating in your living room has gone by many names throughout its history. It has followed its owners to the afterlife in ancient Egypt, marked the transition from one reign to another in 18th-century France, and supported the antics of television viewers and gamers in the 20th century.
Couch. Sofa. Settee. Divan. Chaise lounge.
That island of repose floating in your living room has gone by many names throughout its history. It has followed its owners to the afterlife in ancient Egypt, marked the transition from one reign to another in 18th-century France, and supported the antics of television viewers and gamers in the 20th century (view photos).
“The history of the couch is anything but ho-hum,” says Beverly K. Brandt, a professor of interior design with the College of Design at Arizona State University.
The couch, as we know it, didn’t begin as a place to sit down. Look at images from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome and you will see the idle rich reclining on a couch to sleep and to eat.
“They were status symbols — the most expensive piece of furniture in the house and the most beautiful,” says Brandt. Piled high with pillows and draped with fabric, couches were moved from the bedroom to the dining room on a regular basis and were even used as a funeral bed (several couches were found in the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen).
In the Dark to Middle ages, people began to sit upright while eating, so the couch stayed in the bedroom. Furniture was designed to move easily from place to place.
This is the age of upholstery.
“It’s a very sensual era,” says Brandt. “People wanted to be more relaxed.”
By the beginning of the 17th century, upholstered sofas and couches were reserved for the very wealthy. The Baroque style, inspired by Louis XIV, was about style over substance. Furniture was heavy and laden with gold trim and thick, luxurious fabric. The French soon surpass the Italians as the trendsetters in furniture design.
The Age of Enlightenment inspires the neoclassical movement and clean lines. The Grecian couch comes back in the form of a daybed or chaise lounge. Everything gets lighter — cotton fabrics are introduced, and natural woods are exposed rather than covered with upholstery. Sofas and couches are designed to be part of a suite. Increased travel brings East and West together, and the Turkish sofa is introduced to Europe.
The era of mass production begins. Furniture makers look for popular styles that appeal to the masses and can be manufactured cheaply. It’s also the age of revivalism. By the time the Industrial Age is in full swing, people are nostalgic, and their furniture choices reflect that. “The tendency was to revive things that were over 100 years old,” says Brandt. “The age of revivalism was eclectic.”
Pop culture, industry and the use of synthetics dominate this period. Modernism and postmodernism leave their mark in sleek lines and modular design.
The trend toward green design with environmentally friendly fabrics, foams and sustainable woods will continue, says Brandt. There will still be some aspects of postmodernism and neomodernism. (“These two trends are always going to be running parallel.”) Interest in retro, perhaps the ’70s and ’80s, will continue. Mass customization will personalize furniture for customers. There will be changes in shape and style but ultimately, says Brandt, “the more things change, the more they stay the same. We’ll see this swing from traditional to modern to hard-edged, right-angle designs to softer, squishier designs.”
Relaxing on the...
Couch: From the French “se coucher,” which means to go to bed. Couches were initially for sleeping and go back to ancient times.
Sofa: A Turkish creation. Furniture was stacked with cushions, and early sofas looked like piles of pillows completely upholstered.
Settee: An upholstered bench seating three to four people. The wood frame on a settee is exposed, and the back cushion is defined by the wood.
Divan: A couch without a back or arms that is often used as a bed. Divans were found along the walls of the council chambers of the Ottoman Empire.
Chaise lounge: French phrase for a long, upholstered seat with a back rest. This piece of furniture is a revival of the ancient Grecian couch.
Sources: Beverly K. Brandt; “An Encyclopedia of Sofas” by Constance King