Analyzing the Analyst’s Couch

Cites consultant Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on New York Times

Buying a couch is an emotionally charged activity for most people; it’s such a big item, for one thing, such a life-style totem.

But for a psychoanalyst, picking out the Freudian bed on which patients will reveal their fears, fantasies and free associations is more complicated. The couch plays such an important role that it appears to have a psyche of its own. Thus the analyst’s choice of shape, color and style can prove very revealing.

“This is not just furniture,” said Dr. Kerry Sulkowicz, a Manhattan psychiatrist who bought his “low-key” office couch of light gray wool four years ago. “This couch is central to your professional life and to your identity as an analyst.”

Sigmund Freud set the standard: his lush Oriental rug-draped divan still lies in state at the Freud Museum in London. But just as Freudian theory has evolved, so have the couches used in therapy. Shocking sea-green leather couches, plaid couches, couches that look like art objects and even extra-large couches designed for athletes can all be found in analysts’ offices these days.

The theory behind the couch is that patients who are lying down are more relaxed and thus freer to talk, especially since they cannot see the analyst’s reactions. Beyond this, what type of couch will best unlock the subconscious is a very subjective subject.

Some analysts opt for the most neutral, unobtrusive choice. “You wouldn’t want a fire-engine-red couch,” said David Gandler, an analyst with a Victorian oxblood-red couch who works at the psychiatric outpatient clinic at the St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in Manhattan. “You don’t want anything dramatically distracting for the patient.”

Others believe that overt style can have a soothing and positive influence. “I’m turned off by the hard look of many analytic couches,” said Sharon Messitte, a psychoanalyst who uses an earthy brown suede sofa. ” I wouldn’t want to get on them.”

There is general agreement on at least one thing: a couch should not look too much like a bed.

“Enough erotic fantasies are going to come up anyhow,” said Dr. Wayne Myers, a psychoanalyst and professor of psychiatry at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. “You don’t want to program the fantasies people have about the couch.”

Fledgling psychoanalysts must be analyzed themselves as part of their training, so most have already logged many hours on someone else’s couch before they begin shopping for their own. Since a typical analysis, according to the American Psychoanalytic Association, is roughly four times a week for five years, comfort is a key concern. But psychologically speaking, there is much more going on. Or as Dr. Harvey Greenberg, a Manhattan psychiatrist, put it, “This is a Rorschach test for the analyst.”

As a not-so-subtle form of flattery, many new psychoanalysts buy the same couch their own analyst has. “It has to do with identifying with your analyst,” Dr. Sulkowicz said.

Still, some analysts rebel by choosing something radically different, or show their anxiety about their new profession by buying an exceptionally ugly couch.

“Some new analysts are still conflicted about graduating and being one of the big boys,” said Dr. Myers, who owns a Mies van der Rohe Barcelona couch. “People buy these crazy pieces of furniture. They don’t really feel they’re a grown-up yet, so they buy a childlike version of a couch.”

For many, one of the first shopping stops is the Imperial Leather Furniture Company in Long Island City, Queens, a company that has been selling analytic couches since the 1940’s. Fred Brafman and Ira Bilus, the owners, have shipped couches as far away as Alaska and Hawaii.

Their utilitarian office and factory on the third floor of a gray industrial building does not invite much therapeutic introspection. But Mr. Brafman, a 61-year-old man whose career has been spent in this family-owned business, has learned a lot about the taste of psychoanalysts.

They are, he said, a conservative lot. “Mostly, they buy black or maroon,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever sold a yellow couch. People want something that is very sedate.” But there are occasional exceptions, like the husband-and-wife analysts who bought shocking-pink and blue couches in the same style.

Mr. Brafman has discovered that analytic couches suffer from a different kind of wear-and-tear than regular sofas. His company no longer uses buttons as decoration, in recognition of the nervous habits of the analysands.

“The patients are edgy,” Mr. Brafman said. “They pick at the buttons. There was a maintenance problem.” Fringe trim is also considered a bad idea, since “the patients will just unravel it.”

A traditional psychoanalytic couch looks like a flat single bed with a built-in headrest. Walking through the Imperial Leather factory, where metal couch springs leap out of cardboard boxes like Slinky toys, the many stylistic variations on a basic theme are on display: graceful Queen Anne carved legs or Machine Age aluminum tubes, for example. Prices range from $700 to $3,000.

The popularity of the granddaddy of all analytic couches has waned of late. “There’s a famous picture of Freud and his couch,” Mr. Brafman said. “Psychiatrists used to all want to emulate that. But we don’t get so many requests as we used to. So maybe there aren’t as many strict Freudians around?”

Indeed, fewer psychiatrists are taking the training required to become an analyst these days. In 1990, 909 students were enrolled in analytic institutes accredited by the American Psychoanalytic Association, down from 1,109 a decade earlier.

Mr. Brafman, who sells several hundred couches a year, said his orders have remained steady because, “there aren’t that many companies making these couches anymore.”

Of course, the ultimate status symbol is the Barcelona couch, which costs $6,000. At the Knoll Studio at 150 Wooster Street in Manhattan, this imposing black leather couch, with an elegant but profoundly uncomfortable bolster for a headrest, is prominently displayed.

“A lot of people dream for a long time of having this couch,” said Paola Delmestri, the showroom manager. The couch, designed in 1929 for the Barcelona Pavilion, is made in Italy and requires a four-month wait for delivery. This is a somewhat exclusive item: Knoll sells only about three dozen a year at the SoHo showroom, and a few hundred nationwide.

Buying a Mies couch is a rite of passage. Dr. Howard Klar, a psychiatrist in private practice who also teaches at Columbia University’s Psychoanalytic Clinic for Training and Research, owns a “basic sand-colored foam couch that has seen better days,” he said. He bought it for $400 in 1983.

“My own attitude was that if I had a simple, homey couch, the patients would be less threatened by me,” he said. “It was a warped idea.”

Dr. Klar said he’s been in practice long enough now that “I can buy a couch that’s more consistent with my character, more outgoing.” He is couch shopping now and expects to buy a Mies, possibly a used one. “I’d like a more with-it look,” he said.

Analysts in search of a couch with real character can also turn to custom-designed furniture.

“I thought I had made everything on this planet,” said Kipp Osborne, a Manhattan craftsman who specializes in wood furniture, “until I was asked to make an analytic couch.”

The sleek version he designed for $2,800 is made of a pale bird’s-eye maple, which he describes as “an affirming wood,” and is covered with a possibly dream-inducing midnight-blue fabric.

Analytic couches regularly turn up in patients’ dreams, but sometimes they appear in their analyst’s nightmares. Dr. Greenberg recalls that he was once told by his Zen teacher that he should not meditate in a hotel room because too many people and too much energy had passed through, a piece of advice that made him wonder about his couch.

“Does the couch absorb the positive and negative energy of the people who lie down on it?” he wondered. “Is this a haunted couch?”

For the makers of these couches, there is also a certain special something involved in building a piece of furniture that will be used as a prop to elicit people’s most intimate revelations.

“If only my couches could speak, it would be very interesting,” Mr. Brafman said. “But I guess that’s all confidential.”

A reporter visiting his showroom could not resist the chance to lie down and try out the view from the couch. After a few moments had passed, Mr. Brafman asked, in a kind, gentle voice, “So, when did the problems start?” PROBING THE PSYCHE OF THE AVERAGE SOFA

If a couch were a psyche, what kind would it be? The Home Section asked Dr. Howard Klar, a psychiatrist in private practice who also teaches at the Columbia University Psychoanalytic Clinic for Training and Research, to evaluate couches sold at three Manhattan stores: Bloomingdale’s, Classic Sofa and Palazzetti. Here is his diagnosis. REBELLION — $1,400 at Classic Sofa. “This couch screams out, ‘I hear the call of the wild!’ ” THE IDEALIZED FATHER — $3,200 at Bloomingdale’s. “An extremely stiff-upper-lip-two-martini couch.” ANXIETY — $1,800 at Classic Sofa. “The ruffles say one thing, the ticking another. A very conflicted couch.” OBSESSION — $3,685 at Palazzetti. “This couch requires a lot of tucking and folding: an obsessive’s dream.” ANDROGYNY — $3,852 at Palazzetti. “A square, masculine pillow, a round feminine bolster: a mixed message.”

Written by Meryl Gordon