Have you ever wondered how we ended up with the three-piece suite? The story is a 20th Century one and the key to its success is wrapped up in functionality and cost.
As the middle and working classes moved out of slums and into their own homes, they needed furniture. The new homes were compact, with small rooms, totally unsuited to the heavy mahogany pieces of the large ‘society’ houses, and this type of furniture would have been beyond the financial reach of most ordinary people anyway.
The three-piece suite’s popularity grew through the storylines of the 1930s Hollywood film sets. Housewives of the day who went to watch the movies saw famous actresses drape themselves over silk covered sofas or chairs, created in the contemporary Art Deco style. They yearned to recreate this in their own lives and so provided a ready mass market for similar furniture.
Style gurus of the period, such as Stijl in Holland, Gropius and the Bauhaus group in Germany created designs that were cutting edge yet still suited to the functionality of the new era. As these designer pieces were still only affordable by the wealthy elite, manufacturers began to adapt designs for a mass market. Expensive coverings such as leather and silk were replaced by modern materials such as rexine (artificial leather), which had a dramatic effect on the price.
The three-piece suite was a staple of most suburban childhoods. They nearly always comprised a three-seater sofa with two matching armchairs, all upholstered in beige velour or fake leather, unless you were my mother who favoured deep red or green, lending our sitting room the air of a tart’s boudoir or a pub depending on the wallpaper!
It was Habitat and IKEA that changed the concept of the three-piece suite, with their modular systems that could be made to fit any space, in a variety of fabrics. Pieces no longer had to match, so you could express your personality through your sofa choice.
But the modular sofa wasn’t actually invented by Habitat or Ikea. It was invented by an American designer named Harvey Probber in 1944 though it didn’t go mainstream until the 1970s. G Plan, which designed early UK versions, led the way with their 1971 Duo range.
These days we nearly all have some variation on the original three-piece suite in our homes, and it’s difficult to see what might ever replace it!