Style | Swellboy

Swellboy on… buying a sofa

It’s goodbye to a balding, ageing but much-loved old friend

Swellboy on… buying a sofa

Image: Brijesh Patel

October 27 2011
Nick Foulkes

I don’t know what the life cycle of a sofa is, but I think that the circle of life is closing on the Cheops-like presence upon which my family sprawls in front of the telly, to play Total War Armageddon 15, or flick through the channels in a fruitless quest for something to watch. I would argue that a large sofa and a similarly sized telly are the things that keep a family together: physical propinquity on the soft furnishings and the shared cultural (I use the term extremely broadly) stimuli offered by the world’s satellite and terrestrial broadcasters are a powerful bonding agent.

Having lived with our sofa for about 15 years, with its prairie-like cushions and stout little Rubens-esque legs on casters, I am somewhat immune to signs of its alleged age. All I see is a much-loved friend, whose minor bald patches, occasional moulting of feathers and the odd minor hole inflicted by the Houdini of a hamster that went on the run for four days before being recaptured, are just signs of character. My wife, however, sees an eyesore that more or less prevents us from entertaining polite society in our ancestral terraced house.

It is in vain that I point out that we do not live in some Julian Fellowes-esque world where callers drop their visiting cards, the complex folding of which communicates in some subtle semaphore all sorts of information – expressing sentiments from the valedictory to the congratulatory. According to Victorian visiting-card lore, a folded top corner on the left signified that the visitor had come in person (rather than have someone visit on their behalf), folding on the bottom left was a way of saying goodbye, top right was for congratulations and bottom right for condolences. Quite what mixed messages I am conveying when I fish a mangled card out my pocket with more creases than an origami model of the Eiffel Tower I can hardly imagine.

Anyway, the old sofa is to be refreshed, and while we are at it we are to acquire another sofa to match, banishing a sibling sofa in a vaguely arts and crafts style I know not where.

I have been predictably shocked at the cost of a sofa and my wife has been predictably sanguine, telling me that this is what these things cost; and then we discovered Apparently is the place where you can get a sofa roughly the size of a small aircraft carrier for little more than the loose change in your pocket, where the woodwork is the equal of anything that Grinling Gibbons did at Hampton Court and fabrics that elsewhere cost hundreds of pounds a metre are hurled around with an abandon so gay it is almost reckless. And paradoxically it is the relative affordability of this exquisite ebenisterie that is causing me concern. It may cost less to have a new sofa made than to have the old one recovered, but, instead of pleasing me, this was unaccountably upsetting. Our sofa is good for at least another generation; it was built to last, not to be chucked.

At the moment the jury – or rather the woman who will quote for re-covering the sofa – is out, but I baulk at the disposability of our culture. Today as I write this I am wearing a Budd shirt that I bought in the 1980s. It has worn to a papery thinness and the collar has frayed to a state that would disgrace most self-respecting scarecrows and it is not as if I don’t have any other shirts; but I just cannot bring myself to dispose of it until it disintegrates.

But at least in this I am glad to learn that I am not alone. Some of the biggest names in luxury feel the same. Luxury is, in great part, about quality and longevity and I was having this very same discussion with Brunello Cucinelli, who was telling me of the wrench he felt when a cashmere pullover had finally given up the ghost and was beyond patching up. Now it is not as if he is exactly short of knitwear to keep him warm in winter, but he was showing the proper respect owed to a quality item. Even when it was unwearable he could not bear to throw it away, so he cut it up to use it as a duster.

See also

People, Sofas