Cutting the Bulk
“Selfish”, “ugly” and “bulky” are some of the adjectives that designer Michael Anastassiades uses to describe domestic sofas.
Yet Anastassiades was asked to design a sofa for British furniture manufacturer SCP to mark its 30th anniversary in 2015. The project is a new one for Anastassiades, who is best-known as a lighting designer and who runs a studio and showroom in London. The majority of his work has been self-produced and is typified by simple geometric shapes executed in metal and glass: blown-glass shades that rest perilously on the edge of brass rods or nickel cones. He has also developed a series of lights for Italian brand Flos, most notably his String Lights, for which he used a dramatically extended chord to trace intricate geometric installations across a space.
All of Anastassiades’s lights to date have been highly formal, composed pieces. For his first foray into sofa design, he says that he took a similar approach, intending to reinvent the conventional notions of comfort that characterise much domestic furniture. “I started out identifying the kind of sofa I wanted to make,” he says. “I knew I didn’t want to go for a TV sofa, the kind of sofa you sink into. I was interested in smaller-scale, more intimate sofas that have an element of strictness.”
The resultant design, the Rochester sofa, is a diminutive two-seater with a high back and arms. It is padded, but lightly, and the back is at a strict right angle to the base, which stands on four short wooden legs. The prototype is upholstered in grey fabric, although this will change for the finished design. Anastassiades hopes it will eventually be upholstered in leather, fitting with the formality and firmness he wishes his creation to embody.
The design started out as a revamped waiting-room sofa. “I was interested in designing something intimate with a formal design,” says Anastassiades, “because I was interested in the public space in a building, as well as the domestic sofa.” Contrasting his work with traditional waiting‑room seating – like the day-bed sofa or Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair – Anastassiades says his design is about creating a more private space for public life. “In this day and age, you are constantly in communication with someone else somewhere else, and I wanted to reflect that. The sofa is less for displaying yourself on a platform, and more about creating an enclosure where you can be discreet without being secluded from your environment.”
The sofa was developed as part of a wider project by SCP. The brand was founded by entrepreneur Sheridan Coakley in 1985 and in 2015 it celebrates its 30th anniversary. SCP built its name as one of the first firms to introduce modern furniture design to the British market, and Coakley established himself as a talent scout by collaborating with a generation of young designers who went on to become influential industry figures – Jasper Morrison and Michael Marriott chief among them. To mark SCP’s anniversary, Coakley asked six designers to create new sofas for the brand, all of which were display during the 2015 London Design Festival. Five of SCP’s past collaborators – Konstantin Grcic, Faudet-Harrison, Matthew Hilton, Terence Woodgate and Lucy Kurrein – were invited to participate, along with Anastassiades, who has only ever produced one-off furniture pieces for clients.
When I go to see the progress of the sofas at the Coakley & Cox furniture factory in Norfolk, UK, the warm perfume of wood is overwhelming. A chair-shaped piece of foam lies discarded outside – it forms a makeshift breakout area – and inside men in shirtsleeves craft pieces by hand, cutting and working Slovenian beech into the bare skeletons of sofas. This hands-on approach is far from the factory one might expect: a mechanised production line churning out perfect frames, cushions and covers, with the human hand only required for final assembly.
This artisanal approach butts against the more industrial methods used in sofa production elsewhere, such as the now widespread cold polyurethane foam moulding that was introduced by Italian brand B&B Italia in 1966. In this process, chemicals injected into a mould solidify around the sofa’s structural elements. By contrast, SCP’s sofa frames are made by hand and assembled manually. Flat, serpentine springs are attached in rows to create springiness, and, at the next stage, layer upon layer of padding is carefully built up over them. More than mere foam, this comprises numerous materials: hessian, rubberised horsehair, chip foam, needled wool and finally a layer of fireproof lining. It is only when a sofa is upholstered at SCP that the various components beneath its surface assume a more familiar form. I watch a worker setting about one with a giant sewing needle and thread. The needle pierces several layers of thick padding to form inviting dimples, or “tufting”.
“Because you have to have a sense of comfort, you need several layers,” says Anastassiades, who used his time at the workshop to acquire an understanding of furniture craft, giving personal feedback on each of the three prototype sofas produced to date. Padding – and determining its required thickness – became crucial. “As you go through the first layer of softness, you hit a hard surface, so the foam therefore needs to be firmer,” he says. “Despite the thinness of the frame and the cushion, I want it to feel like a comfortable sofa.”
Anastassiades says he is conscious of the convention that sofas should be soft and slouchy, professing to both satisfy and subvert such preconceptions in his design for SCP. “I never slouched on the sofa at home when I was growing up,” he says. “Let’s face it. Sofas are very bulky, ugly objects that take over a space. I wanted to challenge the notion of what comfort is and find an aesthetic way to design it, rather than disregarding the way it looks because comfort is paramount. You can’t lie down on this sofa, but you can take off your shoes and curl up. The idea of a hard shell with a soft interior is very much within the spirit of the sofa.”
This essay was published in Disegno No. 9.