Our Sofas, Ourselves: The Art of Selling Origins

pink sofa

See this hot pink number above?  It’s called the “Swan Sofa.”  Here’s the Swan’s (and its designer’s) description in the online catalog of the company that sells it, Design Within Reach:

“Before the Swan Sofa (1958), Arne Jacobsen’s architecture and designs were shaped by an assumption of materials’ natural ways of resisting. In other words, he could make them go only so far in becoming the structures he desired. With new technologies, however, the old rules no longer applied, and he was able to shape fluid curves and single-piece molded shells. The Swan Sofa is now made from polyurethane foam, but at the time, Jacobsen used Styropore® to create its continuous shape. Designed for the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, for which Jacobsen was the architect. A single upholsterer hand-sews the fabric onto the frame of Swan. Original design and licensed manufacture by Republic of Fritz Hansen. Made in Poland.”

Of the myriad ways in which identities are constructed, telling the origin of something often acts as a natural authorizing statement.   While many folks might interpret this sofa as nothing more than a place to sit down, the description above implies that it’s part technological wonder, part artistic expression.  In short, knowing the origin of this couch – its designer, his background, his employer, its first intended function, etc. – validates not only the aesthetic appeal of a magenta sofa, but more than that, it serves as an endorsement of its price (which, in this fabric, is $7248.00 USD).

For those of us with smaller pocketbooks, consider how Target’s Elliot Sofa Bed is described, which retails for $199.00 USD:

orange sofa

“Give a bold and interesting look to your living space with the Elliot sofa bed in orange. Perfect for small spaces like studios, lofts and dorm rooms, this innovative futon sofa bed is convertible into 5 different positions for sitting, lounging and sleeping. The citrus hue surprises and delights and will set off virtually anything you pair it with, from soft blue throw pillows to bamboo accent pieces. Made from durable wood and wood composites, the frame features a rich espresso finish to complement the fabric color. Soft microfiber and cotton blend for a durable cover that can be wiped down with a damp cloth for easy cleaning. This convertible sofa bed comes with a 6″ firm mattress with foam filling. The sleeper sofa bed also has comfy cushions that are filled with foam and polyester to give you maximum support and shape.”

Notice anything here?  While the lengths of the descriptions are certainly similar, the Target sofa lacks an origin narrative.  There is no presumed insight into the designer’s mind, no story behind the café where the sofa’s design first entered his/her consciousness and was hastily scribbled onto a crumb-ridden napkin.  In short, the Target sofa has no history, and absent this past, it is merely a commodity.

Part of the price difference between these two products is undoubtedly due to differences in the quality of materials, the precision of the labor, etc.  But in the case of the former, we would be naïve if we did not recognize that we’re buying a very expensive story in addition to a piece of furniture.   After all, both sofas were made to serve identical practical functions, and although not guaranteed, perhaps even both would withstand the test of time similarly well.  But because one sofa has had a mythical “life” that the other has not, this claim to an origin of some symbolic value actually ends up providing literal worth in dollars and cents.

Humans, it seems, do the same thing with each other.  Consider how we daily engage in origin-telling as we trace ourselves back to royalty, tell how we’ve triumphed over childhood traumas, or even describe what fraction of Native American blood courses through our veins.  Both religions and nations are famous for their origin stories, which are almost always intended to impart a degree of uniqueness, strength, and authenticity that others simply can’t match.  Just as with the pink sofa, these are origin stories that describe how one is to be contextualized, and often, valued.


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