Arts & Culture

Sofa or couch? Know your design terminology

Interior designers bristle at the word #x201c;couch.#x201d; People regularly use this word when they are referring to a
Interior designers bristle at the word “couch.” People regularly use this word when they are referring to a sofa. The sofa sectional shown has arms and its size allows for multiple people to sit and talk. A couch would not have arms and would be smaller. (Erin Owen)

Last month I felt glum and had to dig deep to write this column. I will try to pump up the pep this time. Yes, most of us are still stuck at home, but with each news cycle I’m finding more stories showing design intersecting with the pandemic.

The following stories appeared in the Washington Post. From the NFL draft came an article that was as much about football as the sizable, opulent leather sectional in Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones’s yacht. From the need to conduct office meetings via Zoom came a story focusing on the bookshelf displays in the background. From the increased need for a functional home interiors came a story about online design services.

Stories like these reaffirm our interest in peering into other people’s homes and judging design decisions. It’s part of what keeps people tuned in to HGTV shows, specifically “House Hunters.” “Their budget is what? They picked that house? Who are these people?” The stories also reflect our desire to devote our attention to something lighthearted during months of stories about sickness and death.

The NFL draft article said Jones’s “couch” was the star of the draft. My reaction: Yeesh! The writer used the wrong word. To put it in perspective, it’s a gaffe equivalent to using the wrong form of there. English teachers would be just as horrified as designers if they read the message: The customers would like help selecting fabrics for THERE couch.

Good luck getting a designer to think that is a worthwhile effort.

Saying couch in place of sofa shows a lack of design savvy. A sofa has arms and is designed for sitting, and a couch is an armless piece designed for laying or reclining

Couch is a colloquial term. The word that usually follows couch — potato — isn’t a positive description. Neither a couch nor potato should be in a living room. Sofa is a tailored word. Sofas are individually made for customers based on their selections. Personal design choices do belong in a living room.

Bookshelves, too, have their place in a home. Built-in casework around a fireplace brings symmetry and display space. The voracious reader may dedicate a room to a library. Admittedly, bookshelves may have fewer books as reading is done on tablets or played through apps.

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Whatever they contain, bookshelves are a lot like eyes; they are windows to a person’s personality and interests. Without having met someone, it would be possible to describe the person by looking at the books, photos and art displayed on shelves.

Not that anyone was asking, but there’s an idea for a new reality show. Build reproductions of bookshelves from homes of famous people and give contestants a set time to identify the person. Call it “Shelf Sleuths.” Winning contestants get to spend an afternoon with the famous person while practicing social distancing, of course.

That idea is unrealistic, but I am glad to see designers are keeping online clients mindful of what their budget allows. It’s human nature to select items and create plans bigger than the budget allows. Need proof? See “House Hunters.”

I’m not sure how many other ways interior design will intersect with the pandemic, but it’s a safe bet we haven’t seen the last “couch” usage in a story. Be on the lookout for sofa impostors.

Erin Owen graduated from the interior design program at Kirkwood Community College. She has worked as a commercial and residential interior designer. Comments: erin.n.owen@gmail.com

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