Field Notes
Red Couch: Our Longest Living Prototype

Sometimes, good things come to an end. If you’ve taken a class or workshop at Stanford, chances are you’ve experienced the red couch. There's also a chance you didn't know it's an important part of our history. Watch our video to find out why we're saying farewell to our beloved red couch. 

At the we’re all about giving students a chance to tap into a powerful resource: their own creative confidence. We encourage other people to create change in their communities and in their ways of working. One way to help students to discover their creative edge is to shake things up. As Scott Doorley & Scott Witthoft have shown in their book, Make Space, changes in your work environment such as, furniture and floor plans, help nudge people into more collaborative and creative behaviors. The red couch is a bright physical reminder to keep ourselves in a design mindset. For us, it’s become a symbol of design thinking and design doing.

We sat down with Charlotte Burgess-Auburn (she’s the one getting rolled away at the end of the video) to learn more about what the red couch is really about and to hear some of her stories.

Charlotte, what’s your role at the and connection to the red couch?

I have the very great honor of being one of the people who first brought the red couch to the I’m the’s Director of Community, a title I made up on my first day at work in 2005— to try and make it seem like I was someone important so that I could attract students to the while also asking a lot of favors from folks in the administration. I am an experience designer at heart. I create opportunities for our communities of students, teaching teams, and staff to connect with one another. I use everything in our environment at my disposal to create the optimistic, fun, authentic, low-resolution, high-touch culture that the is known for.


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“The red couch is a bright physical reminder to keep ourselves in a design mindset. For us, it’s become a symbol of design thinking and design doing.”

I’ve seen t-shirts, stickers, posters idolizing the subject in question. It’s kind of weird. What makes the red couch so special?

The Klippan loveseat from IKEA is really one of the world’s least impressive couches. It transcends its humbleness in two ways that have made it into the icon of creative thinking that it is today. It’s red, and it’s practically indestructible. Let me explain.

The shape of the couch itself is quite basic. It’s a rectangle, with some more rectangles attached to it. It’s comfortable and simple. Its boldness comes from its color. The choice to make something red is always intentional. And in choosing a red couch we were saying, “This place needs energy and vibrancy, and we’re not afraid to make bold choices.”

“The red couch is our longest living prototype.”

The red couch is our longest living prototype. It’s relatively cheap, for a leather couch, so you don’t feel bad about trying something that might not work. It’s a prototype at just the right resolution. Bright and dynamic enough to say what you want to say, practical and hardy enough to win the Darwinian war of evolution in our continually changing landscape. That thing is indestructible. The number of half-eaten burritos I’ve seen that just wiped right off with a damp cloth… The red couch entered our lives, and then it just stayed and stayed. We bought one, and it looked good a year later, so we bought a few more. We moved to another building and they still looked great, so they just kept coming. They are easy to clean, easy to modify, and easy to fix. And when they do get broken and too roughed up to use, we skin them and save the leather to use for projects and keepsakes. We try to get every last bit of life out of them.

I see that all of the couches have wheels, actually, most of the furniture at the are on wheels...Why is that?

The moved 4 times in 4 years. As we grew, we knew the each of our spaces was a prototype for the next one—we were always thinking ahead to the next size up. Every space we had available to us was a little smaller than what we actually needed. To run the variety of classes, events, workshops, meetings, and parties that we wanted to, we had to use the same space in many different ways. We have purchased, designed, and hacked a lot of furniture over the years. Wheels are the most efficient way to maintain flexibility in our space, and to adapt to new plans. Also, a couch on wheels is a fun item.  


So, how did it begin?

The date on my picture says it was January 2, 2006. This was just a few days before our very first class, held in the Birch modular trailer out by the Medical School. We were expecting 60 students to arrive in a just a few days, and we needed furniture for our classroom ASAP! fellows, Coulter Leyes and James Monsees and I went to IKEA (the go-to source for cheap, hackable furniture) to look for chairs. And instead, we found this.

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Actually, we found the cheaper version of it, covered in orange fabric, which only cost $300. We thought couches would be a good signal about how learning at the would have a different feel. And then Colter and James saw this one, which cost $500, and it was love at first sight. So of course, I said “No way are we going to buy a bunch of expensive leather couches for our prototype classroom!” We bought three of the cloth ones. And then I relented and told them we could buy one of the red ones for the teaching team working area. I mean look at them, they were so excited about it.

Anyway, it turns out that the cloth couches were what I call “fast-nasty.” The red couch, with its smooth leather exterior, was the only piece of furniture to repel the dirt that was tracked in throughout the rest of the school year.


What’s next? I heard a rumor about blue chairs… can you confirm or deny?

Actually, I think it’s time to design our own. We’ve been working with a great prototype for over a decade now. Let’s put everything we’ve learned about it into a brand new plan just right for where we are now, and where we’re going.


Favorite story

"I rolled four couches together in a square around a little rug. I used it as a playpen for my son Henry when he came to work with me as a toddler. We’d throw a bunch of toys in and he would play for hours. Later on he figured out how to climb out and wreak havoc, but it was fun while it lasted!"

Weirdest thing you’ve seen on the couch?

"We have to open up the bottom every few years to fix the springs. And you would not believe what we find in there. Buckets of loose change, post-its and pens and pencils, but also earrings, keys, mini-figurines. I found a telephone once!"

3 words to describe it

"Tough as nails."


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Your Stories

From time to time, we've heard that Red couch has inspired others around the world. Do you have a red couch? We'd love to collect your red couch stories and see your photos! Share them on Twitter and Instagram with hashtag #redcouchluv and we'll share them on our website and social media. 

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