The Couch. A psychoanalytical fantasy
von Thomas Wagner | Nov 29, 2011

"Every living-room contains – much like a museum in this respect – remnants of past functions, which have become manifest."
Martin Warnke, Die Situation der Couchecke, 1979

Are you still sitting or already lying down? It's bit of a tricky thing, the couch: Observed from a purely practical perspective it can serve the one or other pleasurable occupation – sometimes sitting upright, sometimes semi or totally recumbent, as you like. As such, it seems advisable to begin by examining this central typology of relaxed and communicative sitting not solely with regard to functional or aesthetic criteria. Whether with a steep or flat, high or flexible backrest, whether with firm or soft upholstery, with or without cushions that can be draped at will, scrunched up or arranged tidily, whether elongated or truncated, whether deep enough to seat giants or low enough to accommodate midgets – the sofa is the universal piece of furniture of civilized homely comfort. Yet it has a history that is as long as it is meandering, and full of surprises. So let's put the couch itself on the couch. After all, you can probably say: As you make your bed, so you must sit on it. Or: As you sit, so you must make your bed. Or expressed more seriously in the words of art historian Martin Warnke: "We find in the sofa corner the main content of this century's living culture: enabling comfort and security against and for the outside world."

Put on the couch

But let's not fool ourselves. With the sofa it's not just a trivial matter of sitting or reclining comfortably on a piece of furniture. It is about attitude, or rather attitudes – towards the world outside, yourself, your interlocutor, close friends and loved ones, guests and friends, dogs and cats, things and media. In short, it is about attitudes to relaxation just as much as it is to orientation and knowledge. And at least on Freud's couch it is evidently also about a compulsion to tell all, if the recumbent positioning of the person under analysis in a room ideally protected against all external influences is to permit by way of a verbal, seemingly unstructured exchange with the analyst the revelation of suppressed wishes and desires, assigning them an interpretation and working through them. In the same way that Freud's divan – and with it the entire setting of the therapeutic "sitting" – reveals something about psychoanalysis, every couch and every modular seating ensemble speaks volumes about the psycho-physical disposition of its designer and its "owner".

Freud's divan

Anyone who thinks about psychoanalysis immediately has a picture of Freud's couch before their inner eye. It's not for nothing that if someone is suffering emotionally and not functioning properly we say they need to go "on the couch". However, in this context this not only refers to that of Dr. Freud. What we associate with this adage is moreover the emotional and physical necessity to occasionally remove ourselves from functioning in the work process in order to recharge our batteries for continued functioning and making ourselves fit by way of relaxation.

As such, Sigmund Freud's couch covered by a carpet from Smyrna (now Izmir) has become more than an emblem or trademark of Freudian work on the soul. But how could a vital element of the living room prove its worth as a successful therapeutic instrument? Put differently: Why do we ascribe to the horizontal position of the body the ability to promote self-knowledge? Did the hysterical woman in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century rely on the recumbent position in order to work through her traumata and unravel her emotional confusion successfully?

As a piece of furniture the couch creates a whole series of exemplary connections between the middle-class interior (including family talk) and access to the emotional interior. After all, even before Freud developed psychoanalysis it was the therapeutic place on which without too much effort a host of more of less efficient methods can be applied, emotional disturbances treated, and states of exhaustion countered. While methods such as hydrotherapy require extensive premises such as spas and sanatoriums, which were primarily frequented by members of the upper class, electrotherapy and hypnosis could also be performed in the living room on the divan.

The salon with its decor, wooden paneling, voluminous fabric draperies and upholstered furniture decked out with carpets effectively becomes a projection surface for emotional states. In the dreams of patients suffering from multiple physical reactions it becomes a bestiary, an awful vision, which not infrequently has the furniture appear as bizarre animal creatures. In other words, the body's passive position on the couch corresponds with the experience of complete powerlessness – and the disappearance of all certainties triggers a "mental tempest".

Moreover, Freud's treatment room corresponds with the contemporary standard even though his model of such a room – including the "universal examination couch" covered with an oriental rug had at the end of the 19th century already been replaced by white ordination rooms, which were equipped with aseptic tubular steel furniture that was easy to clean. The rug with its oriental pile cast over the divan not only obstructed the view of the expected intrusions into body or soul. It calmed, and as a camouflage for the mobile couch also connected with one another two otherwise separate spheres: on the one hand the physiological, which evolves in a technical world; on the other the psychological, which drew on the equipment of the middle-class living room so as to reduce fear of the former.

The semi-recumbent, semi-upright position that Freud expected of his patients also refers to an alteration in the general sitting habits. Towards the end of the 19th century the onetime aristocratic pose had largely lost its standing as socially acceptable and prestigious while there was more of an emphasis on the intimate aspect, the proximity to sleep and sexuality.

In other words, couch and sofa became the vehicles of a self-communication geared towards the model of the dream, while likewise being assigned the task of structuring the relationship between analyst and patient. The communication situation did not correspond to that of a casual chat in the sofa corner but rather that of a telephone call while reclining, in which the analyst functioned as the receiver.

Relaxation of the sitting positions

As we can see, furniture not only has functional and stylistic dimensions, but equally plays a key role when it comes to communication. The placing of seats in a room centers it, defines the distances between those engaged in conversation, encourages or discourages exchange, and as such creates a radius within which communication is either limited or can unfold freely. A decisive factor is your own attitude – to other people, your body, and the world. Whether ottomans, larger-than-life upholstered stools or pseudo-Turkish sofas – none of these demand a clear sitting position any longer. The division between sitting and lying has become more fluid and furniture invites occupants to adopt a pose of their own choosing. (Anyone who as a student used grandmother's old mattresses as seats not only knows how an oriental bench works but is equally familiar with the anti-middle class potential of the associated lying, sprawling and lounging around.) Moreover, the criticism that upholstered items promote an existential looseness can also be interpreted as a suspicious response to the attempt to incorporate oriental elements into the Western home culture, especially as the relaxation in the rigid regime of the chair moves the sofa very close to idleness and sexual activities.

Passive relaxation

In other words, the sofa designed in the West as an item of communicative furniture for the Enlightenment salon, in the 19th century increasingly appeared to be a risky place and shaky foundation for middle-class morals. While the Orient understood the cushion as an amorphous surface on which the occupant generated comfort by virtue of a position he adopted himself, the West by adapting furniture to the body sought to assist it in performing its functions. Mechanical adjustment features, intended to relieve the body of all activity and accordingly help it relax, placed people in a given position. This still more or less applies today – and by no means only in the office with its ergonomic, technical seating elements. Put differently, furniture for sitting and reclining responds to man's increasing emotional unrest by installing mechanisms with a flexible interior. For Sigfried Giedion, the 19th-century posture also derives from passive relaxation, which produced new types of furniture adapted to the body. Not only the bed but also the sofa functioned as a refuge from what were seen to be the harmful influences of our surroundings.


Anyone who deals with sofa and couch from the perspective of morally bolstered attitudes will inevitably have to address questions of standardization. Not necessarily going as far as Procrustes, the giant from Greek mythology, who offered lost walkers his hospitality and an iron bed and, according to the legend, either chopped off what extended over the end or, if the guests were too short, stretched them to size. The brutal business of standardization demonstrates that the bed or the sofa is not standardized as such, but that standardization is derived by adapting the body to fit them. As such, standardizing the couch and being standardized by the couch are inextricably connected.

The beds of the Cardinal

In addition to standardized adaptation we also have the division between public and private sphere and connected with this the distinction between individual living areas. The inventory of the estate of the deceased Cardinal Mazarin from the year 1661 includes a large number of beds. They were installed in different places, and their location was by no means just restricted to the bedroom, but they would adorn even in prestigious rooms. Moreover, in keeping with the practices of the courtly-aristocratic interior furnishings, which in the 17th century did not yet distinguish between the private and public, the rooms were extremely spartanly furnished at the time and entirely devoid of a homely atmosphere in today's sense.

The separation of the public, representative area from the private space prompted a change not only in the contours and proportions, but also in the coloring of the furniture and its positioning in the room. New types of furniture evolved and were advanced, while the unity of representation and function was lost. The new role of furniture was to satisfy individual needs and provide greater home comfort. In the course of this transformation this newly gained comfort was transferred from the bed to seating furniture, with the latter becoming smaller and more mobile, and gradually conquering the center of the room. Also, because less servants were in attendance things had to be to hand rather than being fetched when needed. Around 1750, this reorientation reached a first climax with sofas featuring a rounded backrest catering to greater comfort. Now the functional radius of the couch was between waking and dreaming, creating space for both. Yet the decision for one over the other remained in the balance.

From "Sopha" to lounging bed

Whether divan, ottoman, sofa or seating ensemble, all of these items are ultimately furniture on the brink – both in terms of human geography, but also regarding the connection between physical and moral position. It is hardly surprising that from the 18th to the early 20th century they were described in dictionaries as oriental furniture. For example, Grimm's dictionary defines "Sofa" or "Sopha" as a "resting bed" and an "upholstered bed" but also an "Oriental word" from the Persian "sofah" and Arabic "suffa", which "along with the item became known in the late 17th century and in the West in general, and as such also in Germany and was described as Oriental: "sofa", amongst the Orientals, is a kind of bed, which lines the walls and windows of the rooms and chambers and extends from one wall to another, for sitting or lying on". After the mid-18th century the word "Sofa" was also transferred to the German "Lotterbett" (literally lazy bed), which was also given the foreign name "canapé". And although the West has in the Greek "kline", a lounger with a turned up head rest, and the Roman "lectulus" its own tradition of a resting bed going back to classical antiquity the career of the sofa very much reflects the interest and influence connected with the Ottoman empire that starts in the 18th century with the translation of the tales of the "Thousand and One Nights" by the French Orientalist Antoine Galland, the "Recueil Ferriol", a picture archive of peoples of the Levant, and Lady Montagu's letters from the Orient of 1763. In other words, the imagination of the non-European coincided with the adaptation of a piece of furniture, and the Orient of the imagination gave birth to one of the home. From now onwards Johannes, the seducer in Sören Kierkegaard's "Diary of a Seducer", is not the only one to sit on a sofa, from which he lets his imagination roam, he also sits in the midst of his imagination.

Today, the wealthy middle-classes continue to furnish their homes with the sofa, in other words a collective dream, which is associated with bygone epochs and distant countries and plays with the ambivalence between representation and intimacy. But while relaxed resting is considered a universal sitting pose in the Orient, the West differentiates between sitting and lying, with lying or lolling around always referred to as an exception to sitting upright. Only those who become too infatuated in dreams and illusions and can no longer distinguish between the different positions will have to move from the sofa in their home and on to the psychoanalyst's couch. And for those that do not feel at ease on either all that remains for sitting, lying or dreaming is the floor. With or without an Oriental rug.

Find a comprehensive overview of sofas here:
Sofas at Stylepark

Already published in our series on product-typologies:
"Everything that is furniture" by Thomas Wagner
"Do not lean back!" on stools by Nina Reetzke
"On tranquility and comfort" on lounge chairs by Mathias Remmele
"Foam meadow, stays fresh for longer" by Markus Frenzl
"In Chair World" by Sandra Hofmeister
"All the things chair can be" by Claus Richter
"The shelf – furniture for public order" by Thomas Edelmann
"How the armchair got its wings…" by Knuth Hornbogen
"Pillar of society" by Thomas Edelmann
"The rocking chair as a phenomenon for the arcades" by Annette Tietenberg
"The small world of multi-functional furniture" by Nancy Jehmlich
"Now stop jumping on the bed! The bed as a place for work, rest and play" by Annette Tietenberg
"It's set" on tables by Sandra Hofmeister

“The Siesta” by Arthur Frederick Bridgman, 19th or early 20th century, Spanierman Gallery, New York
“Berthe Morisot on a divan” by Édouard Manet, 1872/73
„Madame Monet on a divan“ by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1872
„Lady on a Pink Divan” by Julius LeBlanc Stewart, 1877
„Jove decadent” by Ramon Casas, 1899
“Portrait de Monsieur Levett et Mademoiselle Glavani assis sur un divan en costume turc” by Jean-Etienne Liotard, 1738-1741, Louvre Museum, Paris
„Sofa" by Alexandr Onishenko, 1999
Lionel Logue’ couch from the movie “The King's Speech”
Student reading in the Shaw Library, 1964, Foto: Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science
Schlafsofa Nr. 1 by Thonet, 1884, Courtesy of Patrick Kovacs, Kunsthandel GmbH
Image above: Freud’s Couch in the Freud Museum in London, photo: Konstantin Binder; Image below: Sigmund Freud
„Portrait of the artist’s wife, Marie Fargues (ca.1718-1784), in Turkish dress“ by Jean-Étienne Liotard, 1756 - 1758
„Portrait of Mustapha Aga Emissary to the Swedish Court“ by George Engelhardt Schroeder, about 1727-1732
“The toilet” by Frédéric Bazille, 1869-70, Musee Fabre, Montpellier
“Lady on a divan” by Emil Orlik, 1916
“Portrait of Maria Adelaide of France in Turkish-style clothes” by Jean-Étienne Liotard, 1753
“Madame Manet on the blue canapee“ by Edouard Manet, 1874
„Sonnige Stube” by Vilhelm Hammershoi, 1901
Reception room in Palais Eynard in Genf, Switzerland
International Sand Sculpture Festival in Portugal, here Sigmund Freud has a session with a patient, Foto: R.Haworth
Sofa “Freud“ by Todd Bracher for Zanotta, photo © Zanotta