When you imagine a therapist's office, do you visualize, say, a sofa? Over time, the sofa has become completely synonymous with therapy all thanks to one Austrian neurologist: Sigmund Freud.
Freud was the founder of psychoanalysis, a clinical method designed to treat psychopathology through the use of a dialog between a patient and psychoanalyst. He explored the structure of the mind and developed a therapeutic framework that was designed to understand and treat mental ailments. Although some of his theories have been considered controversial, one well-known feature of his practice, that later became the quintessential standard of therapy, is Freud’s couch.
In fact, 99% Invisible has put together a delightful podcast that explores the origins of the couch as a tool in Freud's psychoanalysis work. You can listen to Episode 169, Freud's Couch here. Given the impact that a comfortable couch has had on the practice of psychiatry, we thought it would be fun to shed light on why a comfortable couch matters and the components that make for a cozy (and contemplative) sit.
The History of Freud’s Couch
When Freud began the work that he later became famous for, he wasn't the only hypnotist that used couches. However, his decision to use a couch was because he wasn't a very good hypnotist. At first, during hypnosis sessions with his patients, he had trouble getting them to relax and he would often interrupt them (awkward much?). However, after a while he realized that if he just listened, the patients would let their guard down and start to share their most intimate thoughts and feelings.
His new techniques for therapy, including using a comfortable couch to help patients relax, would come to be known as psychoanalysis.
Although he actually had a few couches, the one is he used most frequently was a gift from a Madame Benvenisti, a patient of his, in about 1890. She gifted the couch to Freud because she thought that if she was going to allow Freud to provide therapy to her, she needed to be comfortable.
Freud's original couch is actually on display even today at his home in London. The couch had been shipped to London from Vienna after he fled the Nazis in 1938. For him the look wasn't crucial, but it had to be the most comfortable couch possible.
The couch was a plain, beige, divan-style sofa that he covered with Persian carpets and velvet pillows. As he saw more and more patients he began to use the couch as a part of a tool in his work. He used it as a way to get patients to focus on themselves by encouraging them to lie down and look up at the ceiling.
Freud then typically sat in a chair in a location that was out of sight to the patient on the couch. The most important rule was that the patient should say anything that came to mind, creating a sort of private discourse, but with someone listening.
As the years passed, Freud saw many patients using the couch helping him to develop many of his famous theories about how the mind works. He even continued to see patients up to the year before his death. Over time, other psychoanalysts began to use the couch as a part of their practices, as well.
Even today, the couch still remained a fixture in pop culture and appears regularly in cartoons and TV shows, such as The Sopranos and Curb Your Enthusiasm. The couch was used as a symbol to establish the dynamic of the relationship between a psychiatrist and his patient, even if the patient opted not to lie down on it during therapy.
What Makes a Couch Comfortable?
So what exactly is it that makes a couch comfortable enough to feel emotionally safe? As with most things in life, there's more than meets the eye:
Much of the comfort of a sofa depends on filling. To make a comfortable couch, you need both a soft and supportive filling. Poly foam is used by many mattress manufacturers. It is designed to compress and rebound, providing the support that you need while automatically adjusting to the contours of your body. Other fillings, such as natural latex, are also highly recommended in order to create a comfortable couch. And filling such as down or wool can add a layer of softness for a luxurious feel.
Some people like to sit with their back at angle while others prefer to sit with their knees and legs parallel to their back. How you sit will determine where your center of gravity is as you sit. If you want to find a couch that puts as little stress on your body as possible, it needs to have the right seat depth and seat height for your body. If you want accommodate the preferred seating postures of many of your house guests, you can always go with a deeper sofa and add cushions as needed to make your seated position more upright. The key measurements of seat depth and seat height, regardless of the style, can really make the difference in terms of making sure it's right for your needs.
As seen in Freud’s selection of Persian carpets and velvet pillows, a soft fabric is very important for making a couch seem comfortable. Upholstery fabrics, such as organic cotton and other stylishly woven fabrics, can provide the comfort that you are looking for. Such fabrics also provide warmth during the cooler months as you recline on your new sofa.
A good sofa starts with quality construction, including the best materials and expert craftsmanship. Maybe you don't want to be psychoanalyzed, but you most certainly want to be comfortable. Taking the time to make sure that not only the style, but the sizing, filling and materials are right for you can make all the difference in the world. Just ask Sigmund.