What is the purpose of a sofa?

‘What is the purpose of a sofa?’

That is the question.

A rather interesting question asked by Steve and Laurene Jobs when they debated their sofa purchase over a period of 8 years. A case of overthinking a little?

(NB: This is hearsay – we didn’t hear it directly from the lips of Mr and Mrs Jobs.)

There are many answers.

The sofa is the epicentre of domestic life, especially since the demise of the dining table.  The sofa is a place to lie down quietly at the end of a hard day’s battling and stare at the ceiling. The sofa is the one place in the house where everyone can sit in a pile in comfort and watch TV. For flirting and cuddling. Much less often for fighting.  Fights are hard to keep going if you are snuggled up against someone. For some reason fights tend to happen in the kitchen. Maybe a decent sized, comfortable sofa can save a marriage? Unless it is more comfortable than the bed, of course.

The sofa is also the chosen bolthole, the default rest-up setting of all household non-human creatures. In fact, in some houses, humans are lucky to get a look in, and end up on the floor, using the sofa as a kind of expensively upholstered backrest while the cats and dogs get on with an urgent, lengthy snooze.

The sofa is also a very convenient place to park the kind of baby that is too young to get up and run off. It is also perfect for training toddlers in gymnastics: the padded arms and deep cushions of most modern and traditional sofas make for safe take-off and landing sites. Washable removable covers help with this usage.

Older children and teenagers seem to like a sofa to themselves, to lie on at full stretch, sprinkled with crisps and surrounded by casually dented aluminium cans. So as they get older and longer, we find ourselves contemplating more than one sofa per room or one of those squashy corner or L-shaped sofas, which are also handy as one-nighter beds for inebriated guests too fragile to go home.

The importance of the sofa in contemporary home life cannot be overestimated.

The huge and surprising popularity of the totally fascinating anthropological TV reality show GOGGLEBOX, with its brilliantly-chosen cross-section of the British public debating and interacting in a very entertaining way with the programmes they are watching, all sitting on the sofas that reflect their family style, puts the sofa right at the heart of the British family.

GOGGLEBOX gives the lie to the notion that watching TV on the sofa is a passive activity. One of the joys of the series is seeing how forcefully viewing families piled on their sofas engage in, dispute, dissect and react to the output in a highly sophisticated way.

The sofa is no longer part of the furniture, but has moved centre stage – a process that began years ago with the long-running domestic comedy The Royle Family, where all-important family business was conducted in, on and around the cocoon of the family sofa.

So…the purpose of the sofa is to provide a communal platform, a comforting, safe space for family debate, both intimate and, with the addition of a TV, very focussed.

We’re a long way from our 16th century ancestors doing their own thing on hard wooden chairs in opposite corners of the room. In fact, it may be that the modern approach to squashy sofa living is closer to that of our cave dwelling predecessors, piled in a heap to keep warm on layers of furs, babies, dogs, cats, toddlers, teenagers and all.

Michael Curran