The Living Room Couch: Where Did it Come From?

By Bill Primavera

For more than 17 years I’ve been writing as The Home Guru, initially as a way to promote my real estate business. (Yes, I was and still am a realtor)

But over time, the column developed a life of its own and this article represents the 629th in the series. That’s some long run for anything to hold on, but in the case of subjects related to the home, the inspiration for ideas is endless. 

One of my much-appreciated fans once asked me, “Where do you get all your ideas for your columns?” That was simple to answer. I simply conveyed the many questions I had about how a home is designed, built and lived in and reported my observations and research.

Just today, my wife asked me if I had ever written about the living room couch or sofa and where it came from? Darned if I knew, so I did my research.

Certainly, Adam and Eve didn’t have a couch, nor the cavemen in their shelters, but evidence points to the sofa being used by the Greeks in the seventh century. The Greek word for couch, in fact, is “kline,” which means to lean or recline. There, four ornately carved legs supported the ancient couch that was typically used by more than one person at a time. From there, the couch moved to Rome where the couch became a status symbol of the rich.

By the Middle Ages, couches had become scarce. They were typically only found in the French court. We also get the word couch from the French word “coucher,” meaning to lie down.

The popularity of the couch took off in the 18th century, and people started to refer to it as a sofa, which comes from an ancient Arabic word for cushion. Sofas were strewn about living rooms, where people lazed about in a most informal way.

The sofa made its way to America after Thomas Chippendale, the famous London 18th century furniture maker, published a book on furniture. Now everyone was getting a couch, not just the wealthy. Meanwhile, back in Europe, the chaise lounge was becoming popular.

In my childhood, lived in the 1940s and ‘50s, sofas usually came in a suite of living room furniture with one or two side chairs and a coffee table. The first couch I remember in my childhood was overstuffed but very firm. Its fabric was itchy and indestructible. 

In the 1960s, the couch took on a whole new look with straight lines and bold designs as furniture makers used their creativity to design couches that reflected self-expression and the times.

When I moved to New York, my first sofa was, believe it or not, a straight-lined Danish Modern with foam rubber pillows. When out-of-town guests would visit me, I would place the long bottom cushion on the floor to be used as a bed. 

After just a year, I moved into a large apartment in an historic building where the ceiling height in my living room was more than 16 feet. To match that scale, I bought a large camelback Chippendale sofa at W. & J. Sloane, which some of you older folk like me may remember as an exquisite furniture store. As I remember, that sofa was more than 90 inches long.

But when problems developed between my roommate and me and we decided to go our separate ways, I moved into a much smaller four-floor walk-up. As it happens, the sofa was so long that it couldn’t make the corners of the stairwell and it broke my heart but I had to send it back to W. & J. Sloane. Even though I had used it for more than half a year, Sloane took it back because my landlady, a decorator, had a connection there.

My next sofa was actually a more modest Chippendale settee that sat only two.  It is memorable because I invited a girlfriend from work to accompany me when I picked it out. As it turned out, I ended up marrying that woman, and today, many years later, we still enjoy sitting on it.

Since we now live in a modern home, however, I also bought a comfortable Lawson sofa that sits three very comfortably. 

It’s perhaps odd, but modern lifestyles dictate that we never really sit in the living room on that sofa, especially now that we have no guests due to the pandemic. It may be very comfortable but today it’s just for looks. It will be great when it can beckon to guests once again.

While both a writer and publicist, Bill Primavera is also a realtor associated with William Raveis Real Estate and founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc., the longest running public relations agency in Westchester (www.PrimaveraPR.com), specializing in lifestyles, real estate and development. To engage the services of The Home Guru and his team to market your home for sale, call 914-522-2076.

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