The New Plan Sectional
Seanie Blue: Why do you call it the new plan sectional?
Daniel Donnelly: For years we’ve been making site-specific orientation sofas where there’s solid units that lock you into a specific position, but this one enables you to change the layout in a variety of interesting ways. We’ve split the furniture into modules that can interact with each other or stand alone.
Blue: And the modules are different, aren’t they? So it’s not like we’re talking about four sofas that interlink with one another. Each piece is a little bit different, actually constructed differently.
DD: Yes, they’re laid out so they have a kind of an architecture to them. The way that you can create different vignettes with the modules is what I find most interesting. It builds capacity into the future of your interior space. You’re not locked into a specific format, or layout. It’s healthy to be able to rearrange your interiors. I do it often.
Blue: And most people have a large couch on one side of the room and a large couch facing it on the other side of the room. They don’t have a lot of options to do very much.
DD: You’re held hostage by the dimension and the format and that’s what this doesn’t do. It has the capacity to be almost like a puzzle that you can just shift at will.
Blue: Does this plan sectional come with two pieces, or six pieces, or twelve pieces, or thirty pieces? What do you get for this new plan sectional?
DD: The new plan sectional was five pieces total. A couple corners, an armless center, and what we call a half-back, which becomes like a chaise lounge when connected to a corner chair. When you intermix them, you can create an opening in the back to allow space access, and if you use this in the center of a room it actually defines a seating area and can help make the room a lot more friendly to use.
Blue: And it also means you wouldn’t be putting all these pieces up against the wall. If you had a room in which you wanted to put a sofa in the middle of the room, you’ll still be able to use the perimeter of the room.
DD: When you’re in a room, where do you want to be looking? A lot of people would just default in lining the furniture along the wall and I’d rather see the furniture in three dimension so it becomes architectural in the way that it creates spaces that flow through the room. How can you manipulate this? I like to do it seasonally, when you have snow outside, when you want to look out the windows, versus the summertime when it’s raining, you’d rather look at the TV. You don’t have one static situation.
Blue: You don’t have to buy all five pieces though?
DD: Right. You can go incrementally as your needs permit. It can be a cumulative process where you can start with some pieces and add others. I think that’s a different concept than most people have, when they just want to buy a sofa, that’s all. They bought their sofa! They’re happy! There’s no capacity to grow beyond that. We put sofas together that are a little more significant: people have a better, more comfortable, well-built sofa system than having to go out and constantly reinvent their space and buy new furniture every three years. Especially a sofa! They’re bulky. They’re expensive, cumbersome and problematic. To have a collection where you can have a capacity to expand and evolve, that’s the future of furniture.
Blue: What is the fabric?
DD: It is a Danish wool. Our furniture’s generational. It’s going to last way longer than you’re probably able to use it. So that means that it’s got to have a higher performance. The higher performing fabrics are Danish wools. That’s what I almost insist that we use. We can use the client’s choice, of course, but it’s about long-term use and getting that performance.
Blue: It’s available in any color that the client can pick?
DD: Thousands of colors.
Blue: Where was this made? The actual piece?
DD: We are making them in our cabinet shop in the hills of Pennsylvania. In beautiful Arch Springs. We build our own frames. We used historic styles from Dunbar as a template. In the 50's, in the 60's, when you arrived, when you “made it,” got the dream house or the big promotion, you had your house furnished in Dunbar. That was the pinnacle of what Madison Avenue and your decorator recommended. Even if you lived in Richmond or Providence, you'd go to the Dunbar showroom and buy your collection to furnish your home. The incredible quality, construction and design is just the epitome of Mid-Century production. Highest quality materials. Pleasing formats and designs. A little more unusual and not just popular stuff. We used Dunbar as our model: how can we make it as nice as we can possibly can? And that's why the furniture is generational. The inner spring systems, the webbing, they’re not used by conventional manufacturers any longer. It’s a time-consuming and kind of tedious build to construct our sofa interior, but the performance gives you a lifetime of resiliency.
Blue: We’re talking about coils, inner springs?
DD: Coils, inner springs. The magic is the resiliency. You have a flexible deck supporting coil springs, you have the urethane pad on top of it, three independent systems of suspension. Usually modern manufacturers just use one. With our combination of the three, you immediately can sense just the density of the seating, a sort of depth that is intuitively comfortable. Just feels right. When you sit on it, it’s like ‘Ahh!’ The proportion is right. The way that it supports you. It’s overkill to some folks, but to us it’s pretty evident that when you don’t have it and you’re sitting on top of your new sofa your back starts hurting, or you can’t get out of it for whatever reason. It’s ill-designed or ill-made, and that’s just too common.
Blue: So, are the springs, and the metal pieces, the urethane, are these also Pennsylvania products? Is the wood that is used to make the frames a Pennsylvania product?
DD: Spring steels is USA made, not sure if it’s Pennsylvania, but our cabinet shop is near Pittsburgh, home of the Steelers. The wood is 100% Pennsylvania. The fabrics are generally from Denmark. We do our legs, our machining for brass and aluminum in Pennsylvania and that’s all sourced out of PA.
Blue: So everything is basically Pennsylvania made or constructed, other than the actual fabric which can be a choice of the customer. You would recommend wool that comes from Denmark.
DD: That’s what we have the best success with, long-term. Its workable, cleanable, naturally stain repellant.
Blue: Let’s come back to the fabric here in just a moment, well, because the fabric is something that is for other products as well, not just this one.
Blue: It seems like there are three main design aspects to the new plan sectional. There’s this corner piece and then there are two longer pieces. How does this work? Does the customer tell you, ‘Here’s the size of my room,’ and then you recommend what the actual configuration should be?
DD: I can. Generally they come to us with a pretty standard format idea and then I offer to adapt it to their room and that creates more potential. Sometimes we do six sections. Sometimes we do three sections. Sometimes we do two. It’s all based on scale and the scale of the room and the scale of the area that you’re using in the room. So that drives the bus for me. Each time it’s subjective, it’s different. There’s no standard formula for any of it. And that’s what I love. The fact that we can adapt to an individual basis and make it personal. It’s not something that is made for anyone, it’s just for you.
Blue: And the cushions, are those also made in Pennsylvania?
DD: The foam? Yes, the foam is actually from Lancaster in Pennsylvania.
Blue: And the foam is in the cushions that you sit on and the foam is in the cushions that you lean on?
DD: Now that’s a good question because there can be different things. The urethane, high density, we use Qualux which is the highest grade, highest density of urethane material. If you have an older, traditional type of urethane and you sit in the same spot and you have breakdown, or fatigue . . .
Blue: You have an indentation wherever your butt was for many years, so the foam starts to take on the form gradually of its user.
DD: Right. That’s the old stuff that we don’t use. It’s a low density product that’s for the economy of the manufacturer. It’s not for the client.
Blue: It’s just cheaper to do it that way. Looks good in the showroom, then within a year it looks a little dented.
DD: It’s like you’re sitting on a bucket. The Qualux, it’s a little more expensive, but it doesn’t do that. That’s the performance value. And that’s why we use it. Ten years from now, that cushion is still going to be performing. That’s the seat I’m talking about. The back cushions are more subjective: You can have a urethane back cushion. I tend to go for the feather-filled back cushions. They’re more like a nest. They form fit as long as you sit there. They adapt to your body.
Blue: Like a sleeping bag: shapes around you as you’re in it. But if you shake the sleeping bag after you get out, all the feathers are back into their old place and puffy.
DD: And we got all kinds of different variations of foam and feathers where we take an interior piece of foam and wrap inside a quilt of feathers. We just did a cushion for a client that’s probably sixteen inches thick and had a back core of feathers and then a wedge of foam, an odd kind of construction, but it was their taste and their body type that made them comfortable.
Blue: What’s unusual about this configuration as well is that it can be turned into what appears to be a bed? Was that part of the original design or did you just sort of stumble into it?
DD: That was happenstance. My experience with sleeper sofa beds has not been a good one. I never really found a mechanical system that I would like to use. Convertible sofas suck! It’s funny because I’ve had lots of conversations with people and students and they say ‘What do we need, what should we design?’, and I’ve always said ‘You should design a convertible sofa that you can easily convert at two o’clock in the morning when you’re kind of half out of your wits and you’re not going to hurt yourself or hurt anyone else, which is also comfortable, and worth sleeping on.’ The elusive perfect sleeper sofa. This is the closest thing: our sectional system can be shifted into position and then held in place. It’s very comfortable, almost like a love nest or love pit, because you have the back. You’re inside essentially an enclosed environment.
Blue: When you say that it can be clasped together —
DD: We have the alligator ratchet system that locks all the pieces into position so you can push them together and they’ll stay together.
Blue: So if somebody’s twisting and turning the sofas won’t actually come apart and fall into two pieces.
DD: Your ass won’t go down in the crack, yes.
Blue: How long have you been designing the New Plan Sectional?
DD: We’ve been doing the New Plan for the last three or four years and it basically was a client’s idea to split the chaise in half. Once we opened that up, it created a ton of potential and I recognized it immediately. I recommend this system as opposed to the conventional full length sofa which kind of clogs up your life. The New Plan opens up the possibility of your space.
Blue: It seems to me also that some individual pieces would just make nice sofas, if you only bought one piece.
DD: Oh, yeah we do that. You can have a normal sofa.
Blue: The corners are almost like chairs.
Blue: So you can mix and match or do whatever you want to do but you don’t have to buy five pieces.
DD: Right. That’s the thing: style is subjective, but scale is critical. So you must get the scale right. The style, however you want to do it. That’s your choice. The length, the depth and the width are the variables. When you get those right, you can tell. When you get them wrong, you can tell that also. The devil is in the details. But it is certainly something that is personal to the space. You could pick an arbitrary dimension and we’ll do that but I love to tell people, mark the sofa up on the floor with tape. Mark the space up with masking tape and then measure it after you’ve marked it up. Don’t go with perceived pre-measurement, say, start here, stop here and you’ll be able to craft the sofa exactly to the size of the space that you want.