A Tale of Twelve Couches

Posted on
July 18, 2016

A coworker and I were chatting the other day about furniture, and various items we'd found and fixed up from craigslist or the suburban equivalent thereof. At some point, she dropped the bombshell—although quite unbeknownst to her, apparently—that she had never been to an IKEA. If the conversation continued after that point, I feel certain that it did so without my conscious contributions, because my mind had taken a left-turn and was lost in a convoluted rabbit warren of IKEA-related ruminations, leaving her far behind.

I had never heard anyone say they've never been to IKEA. How is that even possible? We're in the same general age bracket, work for the same company and enjoy many of the same television shows... It's like saying you've never been to McDonalds. I mean, sure, we'd like to say that, and maybe it's been over a decade since the last time, but never? Come on... We don't spring forth from the womb with discriminating taste buds and an informed social conscience, after all. Don't get me wrong; I'm not some kind of IKEA fan-girl. Even if we had a car, it wouldn't be my idea of a furniture destination. But for certain kinds of items, within a certain, very broad tax bracket, it's kind of a default, isn't it? Do you remember that IKEA lamp? Ha, no, not that lamp...

[btw, did you know that Spike Jones directed that commercial?]

I mean the other IKEA lamp, the one everybody had in the 90s. The tall, matte black standing lamp with the long, skinny post and a black flying saucer on top? The dish housed a halogen light bulb and I think there was even some controversy about the things starting fires because people would drape scarves over them to make "mood" lighting and—surprise—they'd turn into a Roman candle and burn the house down.

For a while, the back cover of the catalog advertised this lamp for $9.95. For that price, who couldn't use another lamp? The damn things were everywhere for the rest of the decade. When the charm eventually wore off (assuming you hadn't burned the house down), you couldn't resell them—hell, you couldn't even give them away because everyone already had one. Across all the world's landfills, now several layers buried, stretches a thin lattice of matte black anodized metal posts marking the end of the last millennium and the start of this one... that and AOL Online CDs.

(Funny, when I was searching for a photo of this lamp just now, one of the top results that came back was a listicle called, "19 things we all have bought from IKEA." This lamp didn't make the cut, but only because the writer was probably born in the 90s.)

Home décor is one of a few areas of life in North America that brings into focus our otherwise nebulous conceptions of class. We like to believe we're a meritocracy, and that we're all "created equal" (a consideration extended even to people who insist we were created in the first place). I have a rather vague notion that our refusal to acknowledge class makes us unusual in the world, that if you grew up in South Africa or India or Great Britain, you might actually find our protestations of class-blindness hard to believe. Maybe you think it's just something we like to say, but that we all secretly acknowledge it isn't true. But no. I promise you it is possible to grow up in North America more or less blissfully ignorant of class, at least in the British or Indian sense of the word.

North American kids grow up assuming that their school is a microcosm of the adult world. What we see around us is what we believe the rest of the world must be like, and sure, there are "rich kids" and "poor kids," but those differences seem largely cosmetic. Among your peers, your assumed socioeconomic station is more a composite of trappings than behaviors; e.g., the brands you wear or your political affiliation (i.e., whether you consider yourself a socialist, an anarchist or a 1-percenter). At my high school, you could claim to be any of those three regardless of your zip code or your parents' tax bracket. Identity trumped "pedigree." Besides, what really mattered was who your friends were and what kind of music you listened to.

It's not surprising that we don't see ourselves or our families clearly in adolescence. Children are narcissistic creatures at best, and rich or poor, every high schooler finds their personal circumstances fundamentally lacking, in deeply humiliating ways. Most of what you own during your early years—your clothing, accessories and entertainments, with the possible exception of a first car—fits into a single bedroom, and your vote on major purchases carries little weight outside those four walls.

It's not until you're all grown up and have to furnish a place of your own that you realize home decorating is in some ways a much truer social barometer than tax bracket, IQ or grade point average. That old story about the Princess and the Pea touched on something fundamental about human nature, but I don't think it's strictly linked to income or lineage. It's more about taste and something like ingenuity.

One of the best examples I've ever seen was my friend Bill in Seattle. His tiny studio apartment was the most tasteful and charming 400 sq. foot space you can imagine, and his eye for placement was impeccable. He was a concierge with a very modest salary, had no car and loads of personal debt, but his furniture was attractive, the decor creative and his art and accessories perfectly coordinated. The place was always spotless, too—the smaller the space, the more militantly tidy you have to be—but most of all, it was supremely inviting and comfortable.

Going back to my "Princess and the Pea" metaphor, I think you're either the type who can detect the presence of a tiny, irritating lump in a stack of 100 mattresses, or you're the type who, when life hands you cinder blocks and plywood, makes bookshelves.

All of which is merely prelude to the topic at hand; a roughly chronological timeline of all the couches I've owned (and/or borrowed) as an adult, accompanied by a little story about each one. Vamos a ver...

Papasan couch (Pier One Imports), 1990-1993

In the summer between our freshman and sophomore years at art school, my first self-selected roommate and I moved into an apartment off campus. We talked at the beginning of summer about what we could each bring to the table. "Back home" for her was Eugene, Oregon, so her contributions were limited to things she could carry on the plane and the promise of a communal wardrobe. Before I left for college, "home" had most recently been the nearby town of Charlottesville, Virginia, where my grandmother still lived and where I was storing an actual couch (sort of). When I moved to Baltimore the previous year, I was crushed to discover that my bedroom in the standard-issue freshman row house I shared with three other freshmen was barely big enough for the essentials (clothing, music and art supplies), which meant leaving most of my worldly possessions behind. My grandmother's spare bedroom had warehoused the extra dressers, bookcases and accumulated flotsam of my high school years (including the comic book collection, art books, magazines and Barbie collection that has accompanied me on every move since then) but she was very happy to see me off at the end of that summer with the remainder of my belongings, plus the crown jewel in my roommate dowry, so to speak—the rattan Papasan couch.

At first glance, it was the perfect seating solution—lightweight enough for two teenage girls to carry with ease, giving our spacious, empty apartment a lived-in, yet islandy insouciance—and my roommate was even more excited about its arrival than I was. (A bit of perspective here might help; we had spent our first year in student housing where the furniture that came with the apartment consisted of a single bed each, with mattresses sheathed in stiff plastic (not even kidding), a wood kitchen table and two chairs and a flimsy, threadbare sofa that was so depressing my mind has blocked out any visual memory of it whatsoever.)

In my eagerness to contribute something of value to our shared home, however, I had forgotten the one tiny downside to Papasan couches—they're uncomfortable as fuck. Also, there's that thing where every time you sit on it the stuffing gets gradually flattened and squashed out to the edges, so that every few days you have to pick it up and shake it violently, rotating it a full 360 degrees until the stuffing is redistributed to the center.

It was a cosmic joke made that much crueler by the fact that my roommate, at five feet eleven inches tall, was naturally blessed with the kind of proportions that would render such labors inconsequential—or less onerous anyway, than for someone five feet two inches tall. But despite being practically born to perform this admittedly unpleasant task with minimal effort, my roommate couldn't be bothered to do the fluff/shake/rotate drill because, in addition to being astonishingly lazy, she was almost entirely oblivious to her physical surroundings and was thus able to endure long stretches of time in the rattan torture bowl which couldn't be endured by others.

But we weren't exactly turning away potential couches at the door, and the necessities of ramen noodles and after-hours cover charges left little in the budget for furniture, so we put up with it for another year. The flattened, misshapen cushion could after all be temporarily rendered benign for short periods following a strenuous fluffing. It would recapture a fraction of its inviting appearance and jaunty character, but the window before it reverted to its natural state was increasingly brief. By the time guests had their first drinks in hand, the couch had dropped any pretense of being something other than a thinly veiled bamboo torture device—and if more than one person tried to sit on it at a time, the transformation was almost instantaneous.

Lessons learned: Female roommates share a fragile and fleeting bond at best, poised at the crossroads of adolescence and adulthood, with academic and creative pressures unlike any we experience prior to college. Add to that the natural cognitive dissonance of being on your own for the first time, yet feeling the contradictory impulse to forge an immediate, unbreakable bond with the nearest available peer the way you did in childhood, not to mention the manifold perils of living in a state of constant financial instability, sharing food, friends and clothing, while trying not to share beds or boyfriends. Despite all that, if you were to examine the first tiny crack in the façade of our relationship, which ultimately grew into an irreparable chasm, you'd probably find that goddamn Papasan couch at the bottom. The thing is, it wasn't even really a couch, a category whose sole distinction from that of "chairs" is the implication of plural seating. Make no mistake: the Papasan couch is seating for one—an oversized, badly engineered, creaky, floppy mess of a seat for one that wants you to think it's a casual, friendly, comfortable seat for two—in other words, a fucking asshole.

Black vinyl sofa, bought used from a neighbor, 1993-1995

The first couch I bought after moving across the country was also a rather apt metaphor for the first two of the three years I lived in Seattle; hard, cold, and uncomfortable. It was black and minimalist so it went with everything and it looked good at a distance, but there was no disguising what it was when you sat down—cheap and plastic (ooh, the metaphor is deep). The instant I could afford something better, I bought my first-ever new living room furniture set and sold the black vinyl one to a coworker who was going through an even worse period of financial hardship. She was delighted and grateful to be getting such a good deal and in return I got to feel like I was doing something noble.

Green vinyl sofa/loveseat set, some Seattle furniture liquidators, 1995-1998

When I met Mr. Pink in 1998, about 80% of my furniture was from IKEA for one reason or another. The one notable exception was this matching sofa and loveseat set bought in Seattle in 1995 and brought with me a year later when I moved to Canada. I was only two jobs away from waiting tables, so they were still imitation leather (AKA vinyl) but they were an upgrade in every way, comfort included, from the previous black vinyl one. Since it was 1995, they were of course forest green but, thanks to the predatory instincts of my two extremely naughty cats, they were actually forest green with a unique pattern of long, jagged stripes where the vinyl had been clawed away to reveal the white canvas lining underneath (thank god for that lining—it was the only thing standing between my living room and a total Snowpocalypse of upholstery stuffing).

The first time Mr. Pink came to my apartment, he spotted them immediately and made some dry, witty comment (or so I thought) about how cool my couches were. He's always been lightning-fast with the snarky comments—hell, that's the first thing I found attractive about him. (He is a Scorpio, after all.) I think I responded with something equally snarky like, "Aren't they fabulous? You would never guess I have cats."

It wasn't until a few months later, with a couple of our friends over for dinner, when we were testing out our soon-to-be oft-repeated tale of "how we met" that I heard the story from his side for the first time. I learned that in the dim light of my living room, and the filter of several drinks, he had mistaken the ripped vinyl on my couches for tiger stripes. Operating momentarily under the assumption that they looked that way on purpose, he was actually being sincere when he said, "cool couches." OMFG!  I laughed out loud along with our guests imagining the scene from his perspective—what a great first impression I made by accident with my ridiculous, shredded couches! Tiger stripes are indeed a bold decorating choice—but not one readily available for $599 a set, which unfortunately was my budget for couches when I bought them.

If you happen to be stuck in an IKEA tax bracket and you actually care what your place looks like, you basically have two options. Either you think and act and make every purchase like a grown-up, erring on the side of minimalism, slowly building up a collection of classic, generic furnishings, keeping clutter to an absolute minimum, and keeping the color palette on the straight and narrow, in safe, neutral ground, all the while praying that your peers can't tell the difference between good taste and self-control; or you're like me.

It comes down to whether you view life as a long, strategically played game of Monopoly or as an endless game of Let's Make a Deal. Both games are prototypically American and both are artful metaphors for capitalism. The big difference is obvious to anyone who's ever played or even watched one of those two games: only one of them is actually fun.

Black leather loveseat (briefly Mr. Pink's), 1998

When I met Mr. Pink, he had recently returned to Canada after living in LA for six years. He lived in a cute one bedroom on Beach Avenue with a view of English Bay that was so inviting his guests often made an immediate beeline for the balcony, only to discover some time later that the actual apartment was practically empty but for a few basic necessities and a pile of half-unpacked boxes. Aside from the air mattress that served as a bed and the antique leopard print armchair that he'd reupholstered himself, the sole piece of furniture was a black leather loveseat (which he had already agreed to sell to one of his employees, so it wasn't in the apartment for long after we met). The first night I spent at Mr. Pink's, I awoke to find that we had fallen asleep like a litter of kittens, all curled up and intertwined, still half-decked out in the previous night's club clothes. By then the midday sun had begun streaming in through the floor-to-ceiling living room windows, which were completely devoid of curtains, baking us like an open-faced sandwich on a black leather hot plate. As I carefully extracted myself, I marvelled at how soundly we'd managed to sleep in such conditions. I took it as a tiny sign that we were meant for each other. (And you can laugh at that all you like, but the joke's on you because I was right!)

We were pretty much inseparable after the night of the "tiger striped" couches, but it was about six months before we made it "official." I moved into his place and a friend of a friend conveniently agreed to take over the lease on the small apartment where I had been paying rent but never slept. It was a great arrangement because I had time to sort through what I really wanted from my previous life and toss or donate everything else. Usually when you move out of one place and into another, you have a single day in which to move everything and you often find yourself unpacking things at the new place that you no longer even want.

By the time I moved in, Mr. Pink had sold the leather loveseat to one of his employees so we brought over my green leather loveseat (the less damaged half of the set) and left the sofa to the friend who took over my apartment. Even without a lot of other furniture to compete with it, it was immediately obvious that the green vinyl did not go. And "less damaged" was definitely not damage-free. It had its share of rips and claw marks, which we eventually decided to cover with (closely but not perfectly) matching duct tape. We researched sofa slipcovers, but it was that early '90s pouffy, slouchy, shapeless style that made it hard to imagine any slipcover wouldn't just look like a fitted sheet draped over a crappy sofa. We tried hiding it with faux fur throw blankets, but not only did they shed mercilessly, they were constantly sliding off or down into the space between the back and the seat cushions. We briefly considered velcroing them, but we knew down that road lay madness. On the weekends, we browsed furniture stores and collected pictures of "dream sofas" online. We didn't want to buy something just to fill the space, so we agreed we would hold out until we found something we really liked. This proved challenging because the longer we had that loveseat the more we hated it.

And so began a decade-long game of couch roulette. Back then we had more friends than money (sorry, I know how fucking depressing that sounds—don't dwell on it), so we could always find someone to help us move large items on the spur of the moment, and we often found ourselves on the receiving end of what I came to think of as "couch karma," a mysterious cosmic force that oversees and ensures balance and reciprocity w/r/t sofas; buying, borrowing, lending, donating, inheriting, cleaning, restoring, moving, hauling away, dumping in the middle of the night, and in one not-to-be-repeated case, sawing them in half.

Futon (borrowed, briefly), 2001

A loaner from a friend who was moving apartments and in need of temporary storage, this futon was supposed to be the answer to our loveseat problems, but it ended up being the shortest-lived entry on this list, proving what I think we both knew in our hearts but had never tested in practice; we are NOT futon people.

Neutral sofa bed (borrowed), 2001-2002

When we met Monica, she had just rented a chic "Junior 1 bedroom" condo in a hot new downtown highrise. The apartments were almost patronizingly small, and in the middle of unloading the moving truck, had realized she would need to rent a storage locker for the rest of her stuff. She packed away a dining room set and solid oak sleigh bed, and commissioned her ex-boyfriend to build a custom-fitted bunk in the "studio" alcove—basically a mattress platform on stilts—with ostensible space underneath for a home office (although she never did trust his carpentry skills enough to set up her desk. She knew that every minute she sat there, she would just be waiting for the thing to come crashing down around her head). The one thing that didn't fit in her storage locker but that she couldn't bear to part with was a sofa bed—tastefully traditional, neutrally colored, inoffensive-in-every-possible-way—and within days of meeting us, she pitched the idea of our borrowing it, more as a favor to her than to us.

We agreed, sight unseen, to let her store her sofa with us, happy to "help" our new friend, but nearly beside ourselves with maniacal glee at the prospect of jettisoning the green vinyl loveseat, which was promptly loaded into the back of Mr. Pink's truck, taken away and dumped... somewhere.

Monica's sofa bed was a formal, solid, overstuffed Clydesdale workhorse of a thing—a grown-up piece of furniture to its very core. It was clearly designed not to clash with any other furniture you might have, now or in the future, and it was capable of seating one, two or three people at equal and appropriate distances in an equally moderate level of comfort. It was the kind of sofa that can never really be "broken in" and will never cause your guest to sink in and lose track of time, overstaying their welcome. If you were to fall asleep on it, you would awaken just in time to relocate to more appropriate sleeping quarters, without forgetting to brush and floss along the way. Keys, change and small accessories were never lost between the cushions, which employed the same ingenious techniques of the builders of the Pyramids of Giza, between which modern engineers are unable to insert so much as a butter knife. The sofa bed was not only neutral in color, but at the molecular level, occupying a previously undiscovered spot on the periodic table which, although long theorized had never before been observed under laboratory conditions. Wine stains were miraculously repelled from its surface, which neutralized permeable contaminants that came into contact with it.

Lessons learned? The neutrality of the sofa bed cannot be "jazzed up" with bright pillows or contrasting throw blankets. The neutrality of the sofa bed laughs at your puny attempts to "add a splash of color." Riddle me this, art students: What color contrasts with fresh air, or 50% grey? Does the perfection of a wheat field cry out for a splash of color?

Oatmeal-colored low rider sectional (used), 2002-2004

Eventually, Monica was ready to reclaim her sofa bed and, by that time, we had come to the conclusion that one couch was simply insufficient for two people like us, who tend to recline, dine, nap and spread out long-term projects on or near the couch so that everything is within reach. We bought our first sectional from some guys who lived in a big house in Kitsilano. It was cheap and very lived in but also clean and (we measured very carefully to be sure) a perfect fit for our living room. We hit a sprinkler head whilst trying to maneuver it out the front door but somehow (miraculously) failed to set it off. It did, however, emit the most horrendous, piercing noise that went on for a full 20 minutes until the fire department arrived—the truck, three firemen with axes in hand and everything. They were really nice about it, though, and after turning off the horrible alarm, they helped us move the rest of the sectional without further incident.

The best thing about the low rider sectional was that it was so ridiculously comfortable that our friends would often find themselves falling asleep and waking up hours later, having been draped in a light blanket and allowed to rest while we went about our lives. They would sputter and apologize and say, "I don't know what happened, I just..." and we would nod knowingly and smile at each other because we knew what happened. When our friends weren't using it as a crash pad, we would often fall asleep watching movies, our feet pointing toward opposite ends of the "L" and our heads resting side by side on a pillow in the middle, arms outstretched on either side, hands intertwined. (Awww... I know, right?) That was the hardest thing to give up when it came time once again to spin the couch roulette wheel...

White sofa set (IKEA/used/free), 2004-2010

This set of brand-new IKEA couches came to us used but in pristine condition (and almost terrifyingly white) through a friend's ex-wife who worked in a leasing office. An apartment had been vacated with a full set of living room and bedroom furniture left behind, all of it like-new and most of it from, you guessed it, IKEA. We had to give serious consideration to whether we really wanted to give up the most comfortable sectional ever created, which had served us well over the last few years, but the leasing office offered us a deal we couldn't refuse: if you can haul this stuff away for us, it's yours—sell it or give it away, whatever you want—but the offer expires at the end of the day. (I've noticed, when you own a pickup truck, offers like this are actually not that uncommon.) So we donated the low rider sectional, gave away our old coffee table and upgraded to the matching white sofas and a sleek new glass coffee table.

Red suede loveseat (craigslist), 2011-2012

A short-lived attempt to branch out of our comfort zone, color-wise, this bright red ultra-suede loveseat was purchased via craigslist from a very nice, hipsterish Yaletown couple who it turned out lived only two buildings down the street from us. The decision to buy it was made easier when we realized we could borrow a dolly from the building manager and walk it home in under ten minutes.

Cream-colored leather sectional (Inform Interiors/craigslist), 2012-2015

Another stellar craigslist find purchased from another very nice Yaletown couple (more sophisticated Bohemian than hipster). An all-around solid choice, easy to keep clean and matched just about everything, but I've got to admit I'm just not a huge fan of leather couches. Sure, they look great (and it was nice to have a real leather one after all the vinyl furniture of my 20s), but they're just not all that comfortable and I don't care who disagrees with me. We eventually sold this one to a very friendly and enterprising young man on craigslist, who Mr. Pink has since kept in touch with and for whom he is, right now as we speak, fixing and upgrading two laptops.

Burgundy velvet sectional (custom designer/craigslist), 2012-present

This was originally purchased from a custom furniture builder somewhere in the Lower Mainland, which I believe has since moved or gone out of business. The reason we're not sure is because the lady we bought it from couldn't remember and we were reluctant to grill her on the details because, although we made up our minds within moments of seeing it, she kept changing hers about how much she wanted and if she was even willing to part with it at all. When we finally closed the deal and got it into our apartment (no small challenge, mind you—it's not only massive, but extremely heavy and decidedly nonstandard in shape), I remember sitting on the floor and gazing at it in admiration. Yes, I thought. This is the one. This couch and I were made for each other.

King Size animal print chaise lounge (craigslist), 2016-present

For a few years, we had both the leather sectional and the velvet sectional in our living room, not quite facing off, since one was a "lefty" and one was a "righty." They were stylistically and texturally mismatched, but hey, who gives a shit? And also, we were tired of playing couch roulette and needed a break. After a few years, however, we wanted to rearrange the living room and found that we couldn't because there was no way to make the two largest objects in the room play nicely together. We sold the leather sectional (as previously mentioned) and starting looking for a single chair or loveseat or chaise lounge to round out the room. The minute I saw this picture in the search results (advertised, charmingly, as a "chaise lounger"), I knew we had to have it. The guy who was selling it was out of the country for a while, mysteriously unresponsive when we emailed saying we were definitely interested, but after almost a month of trying to connect, he reached out and offered to not only drop his price but to deliver and help us move it. We were on the Sky Train, halfway into the hour long trip out to the suburbs and carrying a backpack full of bungee cords, packing cellophane and a grocery cart with two big moving blankets, when I nervously turned to Mr. Pink and said, "Fuck, I hope we actually like this thing once we see it in person." The guy met us in the parking lot with a massive moving van he'd borrowed from a friend.

"Van" hardly does this impressive vehicle justice—it was a 2016 Mercedes Sprinter, which looks like something you would use in a casino heist. It was so tall and long, we could have fit two King size chaise loungers in the back without any problem. (It was love at first sight, btw.) Moving the thing, again, was no small feat due to its size and shape (picture a curved King sized bed on legs, was how he described it), so the guy had invited another friend along to help. Despite it being quite a tight (and slightly illegal) fit, the four of us squeezed into the front arranging ourselves awkwardly across and in between the two bucket seats. I was amazed at how comfortable the ride was—as quiet and smooth as, well, you might expect from a Mercedes, I guess. Anyway, between the four of us, and with the aid of both moving blankets and several bungee cords (no bubble wrap needed), we got the thing out of his storage locker, into the Sprinter and downtown to our apartment, where we had our first scare of the evening when it briefly looked like it wasn't going to fit into the elevator. But it did, and now it sits across from our velvet sectional...

And they lived happily ever after, the end.