November 2, 2016

Evolution of the couch: Do you know what you’re sitting on?

How Decor Trends Have Evolved: Couch Series

Whether you prefer to perch on a firm couch or sink into a sofa, there is no denying that one of the world’s most ubiquitous pieces of furniture has evolved with the times – and is, evidently – symbolic of the cultural mindset in which it was crafted. From the Roman Empire, which associated such settee as a sign of elitism to the early 20th-century and the popularity of the chaise lounge (think Freud's couch) in conjunction with the advent of psychoanalysis. Even the term “couch potato,” meaning a lazy person, was first uttered in 1976 and remains ingrained in the lexicon of pop culture today (the ultimate caricature being Homer Simpson). The couch is much more than a place to “Netflix and chill,” as far as 2016 jargon goes, but a part of history.

Although the word “couch” derives from the French verb “se coucher,” meaning, “to lie down,” the lounging apparatus itself can be traced back to Ancient Greece, approximately 3,000 years ago. The Greeks called their version of a couch – merely an uncomfortable block supported by four legs – a “kline.” We find its influence in the English word ‘recline,’ although the term “recliner” used to describe a type of chair wouldn’t enter the mainstream until 1880.

Around 1850, the couch had morphed into a versatile reclining bed that was not only taking up more space but also becoming a focal point amongst upper-class gatherings.

This brings us to England in the 19th-century and the dawn of the chesterfield – a large, leather couch with distinctly buttoned upholstery, and equal back and arm height to help keep posture while sitting. The story cannot continue without acknowledging Lord Phillip Stanhope, The Fourth Earl Of Chesterfield: politician, writer, and trendsetter. He created the eponymous couch as a way for people to sit together without wrinkling their affluent attire (think wool suits and satin evening gowns).

Just like Lord Chesterfield’s innovation, the Victorian-era couch was designed in conjunction with the social behaviours and clothing of the time too. As absurd as it is to consider today, many women were prone to what was called “female hysteria” - a diagnosis for their frequent fainting. The couch, which was dramatically embellished and incorporated asymmetry, curves, and gold finishes, was a staple in the Victoria drawing room, or fainting room, where a woman of “easily offended sensibilities” could recline in style.

Of course, we now know that female hysteria had less to do with the personalities of women and more to do with their constrictive wardrobes (hint: rib crushing corsets). The breath-restricting steel cages had the suffocation level of a boa constrictor and were worn every waking hour under heavy layers of stiff fabric. I think we would all be prone to hysteria if our internal organs were being crushed while attempting to remain demure in public. Needless to say, having a couch nearby was necessary under such conditions.

It would be in the 1920s when things became more practical and comfortable, both for women’s fashion and furniture. In 1928, the first recliner was born and a legendary company was founded on the principals of comfort and craftsmanship. American cousins Edward M. Knabusch and Edwin J. Shoemaker invested in the furniture business in Michigan, and immediately set out to design the Cadillac of all chairs. The recliner, with its luxurious cushioning, full-chaise seating, and smooth power recline (patented in 1930), was a success; they held a contest to name it and La-Z-Boy was the winner. In 1952, the first recliner with a built-in footrest was introduced and solidified La-Z-Boy as a household name that remains strong today.

The couch has a long history of defining the characteristics of the era in which it was incorporated – both practically and aesthetically. In the 1600s, French furniture was flamboyant to reflect the wealth and power of the monarch. For Lord Chesterfield in England, furniture was a complement to the extravagant attire of the times. And in 1960s America, the couch became a form of artistic expression with the davenport – a sectional with psychedelic patterns.

When you take a closer look at the many variations of the couch – from the Chesterfield to the La-Z-Boy - one thing remains the same: the desire to feel at home. No matter the era, we all just need a place to kick our feet up and relax.

Nicolle "Double L" is a multi-dimensional freelance journalist in Vancouver. She is an on-air host, backup traffic/weather reporter, and producer for CTV Vancouver. She currently writes for a variety of publications, including DailyHive, MonteCristo, and Black Press. She is adamant on covering compelling stories that not only inform her readers but also enlightens them. As an active humanitarian, she has travelled to Lesvos, Greece to volunteer during the ongoing refugee crisis, and has worked on orphanages in Zambia, Africa. In her spare time, Nicolle hosts a book club called Book Club, is attempting to become a Scrabble champion and run her first marathon.

Instagram: @NicolleDoubleL
Twitter: @nicolledoublel
Photo cred: @brit_gill

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