Continuing our series A History of Culture in 100 Sofas (and other furniture), culture editor Andrew Nixon explains everything you need to know about the television icon that is the great big orange sofa in the Central Perk coffee shop in Friends. If you’re fully addicted to caffeine right now, it’s probably the fault of this couch… In our complete guide to sitcom sofas, we described the Central Perk sofa in Friends as a ‘cultural icon’. If that sounds a bit over the top then you must remember just how popular Friends was in the 1990s and early 2000s, and the influence it had on a generation. It may even be the main reason why you can’t get through a day without at least two enormous buckets of coffee, syrup and frothed milk. The point about Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica, Joey and Phoebe was that, for all their comic eccentricities and foibles, they were aspirational – they were people you wanted to hang out with, possibly even people you wanted to be. They were young, modern, informal, attractive but not vain about it – they lived in trendy Manhattan loft apartments and they had plenty of disposable income (despite having quite mysterious or low-paid jobs). And they hung around in a coffee shop, on a big orange sofa.
The sofa The Friends very much owned the orange sofa. If there were up to four of them in the coffee shop they’d often all scrunch along it together, drinking from oversize cups that made them look like toddlers. If there were five of them then someone would sit in the green armchair to the right, and in extremis when all six were present then one, usually Joey, would be relegated to the neighbouring table on the left. And somehow, no matter how busy the thriving Central Perk got, they always managed to find the couch free. This improbable good fortune actually became a running gag in the show. At the beginning of an episode in series 3 (The One with the Princess Leia Fantasy) they walk happily into Central Perk only to see another group sitting in their seats, and instantly turn round and walk sadly out again. And in another episode (The One with the Bullies), two nasty mean men ‘steal’ the sofa from Ross and Chandler and a lengthy battle of wills ensues, culminating in a feeble attempt at a fight in the street.
Why a coffee shop? The Central Perk coffee shop is crucial to the way that Friends worked. Every sitcom needs a handy principal location where characters have an excuse to come and go, and chat in various combinations. Whereas that other smash comedy Cheers used a bar for this purpose, the characters in Friends were much more wholesome and clean-living than Norm, Cliff, Frasier and those other heavy boozers. The Friends didn’t do drink, or drugs – they did coffee. What’s more, Central Perk isn’t a café in the sense that as we Britons used to think of them, way back in the 20th century. Rather than the restaurant-style tables and hard chairs we were used to, there are plush comfy sofas and armchairs, laid out around a coffee table like a living room. Many sitcoms are centred on families, and they use the living room sofa as the main prop. For Ross, Rachel and the rest, the tight circle of friends was their substitute family. Outsiders were never permitted for long, and the orange sofa was the centre of their family front room. It is where they gossip, pontificate or just talk rubbish. As the central prop in the sitcom, the orange sofa was so important in representing the essence of the Friends that it stars in the opening credits. It’s the first thing that appears, empty and positioned outside in front of the fountain before being filled up by the characters.
The sofa that changed Britain’s high streets It would probably be an exaggeration to suggest that Friends was singlehandedly responsible for the explosion of franchise and independent American-style espresso bars all over Britain’s high streets – but it did coincide with it. There are some full-on Central Perk replicas in Liverpool and Chester – not to mention in Beijing and Dubai and the name is licensed for similar replicas in 32 countries across the world. They are crammed with massive couches and screen old Friends episodes on an endless loop (much like the channel E4 used to do). But the Central Perk look is much more widespread than the official theme cafés. Bare brick walls, dark floorboards and rugs, blackboard menu, retro signs and, above all, plush, mismatched easy furniture all rapidly became de rigeur for every latte-seller in the country. And as quickly as pubs are closing down, new coffee shops are opening up, and the first thing they do (after stripping the walls and carpets) is to install a nice big sofa.
The Friends sofa – a slightly worn mohair couch pulled out of basement storage at the Warner Bros’ studios – is therefore the single most important item of furniture in shaping the way our towns and cities now look. So if you, like more or less every British person over the age of 12, are now fully dependent on gigantic coffees to get through the day, you know what to blame.