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Kassia St Clair

A Matter of Taste

Why mid-century sofas should look like a dachshund, and other uncomfortable truths

Kassia St Clair | May/June 2015

Scandinavians are rather perplexed by the surge in popularity of their seating. Pieces by designers whose heyday spanned from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s—the likes of Finn Juhl, Hans Wegner and Arne Jacobsen—supported their parents’ bums for years without anyone caring. But for the past decade or so the distinctive, refined, often slightly airy mid-century look has captured the imagination of interior designers in the rest of Europe and in America. Prices of originals have soared, and now even the most humdrum furniture stores offer loll-alikes.

The germ of the mid-century sofa was often a chair. Designers took a pre-existing piece and then elongated it into two- and three-seater versions, like stretching a regular dog into a sausage one. That’s why the period’s hallmarks—exposed legs, low-slung seats, usually a single cushion—are often so very chair-like. Should this clean, uncluttered look appeal, there are three ways to buy it: newly manufactured versions of original designs; second-hand originals from dealers, eBay or flea markets; or modern reinterpretations.

If you’re buying originals, be warned. We expect modern sofas to exhale deeply as we sit on them; these won’t give out so much as a belaboured puff. They were not made for spending hours dozing in front of the television—perhaps because television wasn’t such a central part of life when many of these designs were first sketched out. But the upside to buying original is the level of detailed craftsmanship. Aaron FitzGerald, who owns the mid-century dealer Dagmar (dagmar-london.com), points out that although the Cigar sofa by Wegner may look relatively simple, it is rich in expensive-to-make curves: even the underside of the wooden arms, an area you can’t actually see, is smoothly bowed.

For re-issued pieces, a good place to start is Skandium (skandium.com), which delivers to Europe, America, Japan and Canada. Its Scandinavian classics include the seductive Samsas by Carl Malmsten (from £4,025), whose arms resemble pouty lower lips, and Finn Juhl’s dainty, tea-cup Poeten (£6,608). In America, Edward Wormley (edwardwormley.com) still sells some of Wormley’s own 1950s and 1960s designs for the furniture manufacturer Dunbar. The Gondola (from $7,270) is clearly related to Juhl’s 1951 Baker sofa, but with its straighter lines it eschews some of the original’s whimsy, while the blockish Calle (from $4,632) is quieter still.

Heal’s and G Plan, two British makers ineluctably linked with mid-century design, both sell modern sofas which play the period game. The Fifty Nine from G Plan Vintage (from around £1,200; gplanvintage.co.uk) has the right pared-back, designed-by-architects lines: it might have propped up Colin Firth in “A Single Man”. Heal’s Mistral (from £1,995; healssofas.co.uk) ticks similar boxes—tapered legs, single-cushion seat and button back—but has ever-so-slightly deeper, comfier cushions, designed with the pampered modern derrière in mind.

When I ask Aaron FitzGerald what sofa he would buy if money were no object, he doesn’t hesitate. “An original NV-53 two-seater by Finn Juhl”—an elegant, streamlined piece, with whip-thin arms and a slightly scalloped seat. Sadly, it’s no longer in production and examples at auction are rarer than hen’s teeth. Failing that, he has his eye on another Juhl: the bold, charismatic Double Chieftain (above). The definitive example of a chair stretched into a dachshund, it is produced as a reissue by OneCollection (from around £15,000; onecollection.com). But as he says this, I can’t help noticing that it’s quite unlike the comfortable zeppelin swallowing me in his living room. He shrugs, sheepishly: “Well, I like to watch television.”

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