Sofa, Couch or Divan?

By Joseph Pubillones

March 15, 2015 4 min read

A designer's lexicon can sometimes seem complicated and pretentious. Words that you thought mean one thing can mean something else altogether. This can be due to the words coming from other languages, or if they are infrequently used words to describe a piece of furniture of days gone by. Recently the ever-attentive children of a friend asked me point-blank, "Excuse me, what is the difference between couch and sofa?" My immediate answer was that it was the same piece of furniture depending on your level of education. My answer was partially right. Yes, the words are used to refer to the same piece of furniture, but there are some variations. This column is dedicated to them.

A couch or a sofa is generally a piece of furniture where two or more people can sit. It can be fully upholstered or partially upholstered with pieces of wood or metal frame exposed. The major difference is that couches can be used for reclining or laying upon, as the name suggest the word derives from the French word couche meaning "to lie down." A couch would best be used to describe an upholstered piece in a family room. The term sofa used predominantly in England and Ireland denotes a tone of formality, hence a sofa is a more appropriate word for the upholstered piece in the living room.

There are many other terms associated with couches, such as sofa divan, canape, settee, chesterfield and davenport. Sofa, for example, is derived from the Arabic word suffa meaning carpet. Divan, from the Middle East, was a long seat formed of a mattress laid against the side of the room, upon the floor or upon a raised structure or frame, with cushions to lean against. The fainting couch, a one-armed long upholstered chair, is a form of a divan. Settee, a word from Old English seti, used to describe a long wooden bench with arms and a high back. The term canape is from 18th century France, used to describe a three seat piece of furniture with a carved wood frame.

To describe a sofa as a Chesterfield is a throwback to 19th century England. Chesterfields are a tufted and deep-buttoned style of sofas, sometimes upholstered in leather or fabric. The term is still used in England and Canada, generally by older folks. Finally the least-known word for sofas is davenport. It was originally a Massachusetts brand of upholstered goods. In the 1950s and '60s, davenport was used to describe a futon-style furniture with storage underneath.

The most common type of couch is the loveseat. As the name suggests, it has seating for two. Sofa also has the implication of a large piece of furniture with seating for three or more. Sectional sofas, as the name denotes, are composed of sections to allow the homeowner to use as few or as many needed. Sectionals usually also contain a corner seat for a continuous seating. These can be floated in a room to create a more intimate area or against the walls to allow for placement in a dimensionally challenged room.

Joseph Pubillones is the owner of Joseph Pubillones Interiors, an award-winning interior design firm based in Palm Beach, Florida. To find out more about Joseph Pubillones, or to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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