There were bullnose dressers, rotating plastic organizers, brass etagères, tessellated marble coffee tables, roughly hewn milking stools, and Ducaroy’s Togos, but they felt less significant, less substantial, in the shadow of the most obscure object of our desire: the round sofa. They didn’t do what we asked them to do.
Perhaps there’s a word in language more akin to portmanteau for the compulsion to ease a sense of deep existential loneliness by updating your home decor, as many of us have done during the pandemic. We don’t have one in English, but there are other, more modern ways of “naming” a phenomenon: with a profile picture, an emoji, or a shoppable tag (although these are all sold out).
The round sofa. We love its rarity, roundness and emotional appeal. The curved section has halted our doomscroll since the early days of 2020. We’ve seen and re-seen hypnotic reels where they were pulled apart and put back together. The best traders knew that. “We had a really big focus on the round sofa in August 2020,” the founder and creative director of luxury vintage retailer Pop Up Home, Tricia Benitez Beanum, tells me over the phone. “We sold so many. People were crazy about them.”
Trying to define this unique curvilinear object is a tautological exercise. The circular couch is a couch or parts of a couch with a border or perimeter forming a full or partial circle. Easy enough to imagine, much harder to find. Like a swirl of signs on La Brea, Google is desperately trying to redirect us to more profitable alternatives. Did you mean Wayfair curved sofas? it asks. Have you seen this round swivel chair on sale at Pottery Barn? Thankssay, typing “1stDibs” straight into the search bar. We are looking for the special, the specific.
I’m one of us: I’m looking for a curved sofa. I recognize the platonic ideal: Milo Baughman’s 825 Sectional, designed for Thayer Coggin in 1968. I know its price (around $16,000) and I know to look elsewhere. I’m one of us again, so I’d rather not buy new ones – too wasteful, too expensive (and wouldn’t be here until early February). So I scour Facebook Marketplace and OfferUp; I follow hundreds of vintage sellers on Instagram (@eastonhaus for marble, @sameoldla for 70’s Italian plastic, @monte.vision for the kind of delicious nerd you only find in the desert). So far I’ve gotten nothing.
I would like to say my search was born out of necessity as my living room is awkwardly shaped and a sofa with a circular profile would provide a crucial division. But we all know it’s more than that. A round sofa, if done right, creates an atmosphere of its own, a self-contained bubble of good taste. The round couch is also a spatial flex (I only have room for a quarter circle, so my apologies for that accusation). Owning one means your living room is big enough to fit a second, smaller living room in it. Unlike its ubiquitous U- or L-shaped siblings, the round sofa cannot be pushed against walls or tucked into corners: to really show off its curves, we need significant free space on all sides. Blame Baughman, who believed furniture should be just as aesthetically pleasing from the back as it is from the front. They do.
We need curves to mine the edge. Our brain interprets hard edges and sharp angles as threatening and dangerous, which raises the neurological hairs on the back of our necks. A square coffee table warns us to stay alert and fearful (and we already are lake frightened). On some level – cellular, psychological or biological – we are soothed by the soft curves of biomorphs, squishy furniture and “blobs”. In 2013, neuroscientists from the University of Toronto Scarborough teamed up with European designers to show 200 people renderings of rooms: half filled with round columns and oval stools, the other half decorated with boxy sofas and coffee tables. “As predicted,” the study found that “participants were more likely to judge spaces as beautiful when they were curvilinear.” Neuroanatomically, curves activate the anterior cingulate cortex, “a region that is highly responsive to the reward properties and emotional prominence of objects.” It’s believed that we love curves because they resemble shapes in nature, like shells and mountains and our mothers. Whatever the reason, we don’t just love how curves look — we love how they make us feel.
The round sofa is a meeting place, a spiritual descendant of that unique suburban, utopian symbol of togetherness: the talk pit. The first architecturally significant conversation pit was the result of a collaboration between Finnish architect Eero Saarinen and American-born, Florence, Italy-raised interior designer Alexander Girard in 1952 at the Miller House in Columbus, Indiana. Tucked four steps below the rest of the living room, the Miller House’s sunken space is lined with a perimeter of segmented sofas draped in bright red cushions. As the ’60s progressed, the conversation pit became a gated social coliseum designed for deep conversation and conscious social intimacy, the interior design equivalent of the cul-de-sac.
Just as quickly, we turned on our talk pits. They turn out to be impractical for watching TV and, like the Dead End, surprisingly dangerous for kids. In 1963, Time published Design: Fall of the Pit, an article that suggested unfortunate homeowners fill their conversation pits with “a few cubic yards of concrete and a few floorboards…no one will ever know what once lay beneath.” On the graves of our conversation pits, we laid deep-pile rugs and couches that allowed our televisions to serve as focal points in our living rooms. We exchanged this utopian “we-feeling” for an “I-feeling”; We used to need a community, now all we needed was television. The sectional sofa did not judge. Sitting alone in a talk pit meant absence; Sitting alone on a connectable sofa that theoretically could quickly convert back into conversation furniture didn’t make us feel quite as lonely.
While the more compact L-shaped furniture immediately secured a place in the mass furniture catalogue, its less versatile round sibling struggled to sell and nearly died out. Today, the relative obscurity of the round couch is a feature, not a flaw. Anyone can buy a used L-shaped sofa on Facebook Marketplace, but snagging a curved sofa requires more capital, effort, and taste. The round sofa is a status symbol that knows how to show itself. There’s nothing about a Kagan-esque serpentine sofa or Camaleonda that says, “Come on watch 10 episodes of ‘Chopped,’ no breaks.” But with the round couch, that invitation is always open. It’s the perfect balance between comfort and prestige.
In the chaos of the last two years, our round sofas have been generous. We are raw, vulnerable, newborn, and round sofas make us feel safe and wrapped up. Their modularity protects against persistent agoraphobia or laziness: they assure us that our more social selves still exist. In the early pandemic, the round sofa was a promise we made to ourselves: that one day our friends and family would gather at our place. We told them how much we missed them, how good looking they were and how grateful we were for the leaven they had brought. They sat across from us (or next to us – the configurations are endless), our adopted terrier on her lap, leaned forward and said, “I love this couch, where did you get it from?”
Liz Raiss is a writer, editor and furniture lover based in Los Angeles. She runs the (formerly anonymous) Instagram account @design.out.of.reach.