Mah Jong: Reinventing the Sofa for 50 Years

Sept. 24, 2021

Mah Jong changed the landscape for furniture designers when it debuted in 1971. Now, the iconic sofa has been reinvented for a new era.

Mah Jong changed the landscape for furniture designers when it burst into the scene in 1971. 

The informal sofa, designed by Hans Hopfer, began life as a residential sofa composition and quickly gained favor in workspaces, from Boston Consulting Group to Gensler’s New York offices, where the iconic piece has become a favorite meeting space for employees. Its basic elements include a seat, back and optional stackable cushions. 

“The design encourages people to arrange the elements as suits them best while breaking the rules of formal living,” explained Nicolas Roche, creative director of Roche Bobois, the firm that produces Mah Jong. “These three basic elements of the Mah Jong can be stacked, aligned and grouped as one wishes.” 

How Mah Jong Changed the Rules 

Mah Jong was considered a groundbreaking avant-garde piece when it was created because it encourages freedom of position. Users essentially become their own designer by arranging it themselves in a way that suits their needs. This extreme modularity was brand-new in the 1970s, and Hopfer’s informal approach to comfort profoundly influenced the way that people incorporated their own self-expression into their living spaces. 

“The fact that the Mah Jong is very low to the ground, the famous vivre au ras du sol in French, was a response of new positions and ergonomics—new body attitudes were also claimed as part of the social changes arising in those times,” Roche said. 

Hopfer wanted Mah Jong to “break the rules of formal living and bring a lighter mood to the living room setting,” Roche added. The piece’s fluid nature lets people create a simple place to sit or a highly complex composition. The ultimate in flexibility, Mah Jong is made to meet the challenge of any space it’s put in. 

What’s Old is New Again 

Over the years, Roche Bobois has partnered with talented designers to “dress” special editions of the Mah Jong. “Each of these unique collaborators has managed to highlight a new, captivating and surprising facet of the Mah Jong without changing its core design,” Roche said. 

In celebration of the Mah Jong’s 50th anniversary, Roche Bobois is launching three new versions of the pioneering sofa as part of its fall/winter 2021 collection. All three are partnerships with high-profile designers whose daring designs bring something new to the classic Mah Jong style: 

  • The late Kenzo Takada’s creations reflect the graphic and cultural hallmarks of his style. “East meets West, color mastery and subtle patterns for ever more original and elegant harmonies,” Roche said. To dress the Mah Jong, Takada found inspiration in the kimonos used in Noh Theatre, a form of Japanese drama performed with masks and costumes. He reinterpreted their patterns and colors to create harmonies that symbolize the three times of day—asa (morning), hiru (midday) and yoru (evening).
  • Jean Paul Gaultier dressed Mah Jong in both his iconic striped sailor-style costume and the motifs of his haute couture fashion for an elegant, sophisticated take on the modular sofa. Gaultier’s version of Mah Jong is “an exclusive collection incorporating his humor and talent while reinventing and transforming his style into a poetic, sophisticated and slightly offbeat collection effortlessly connecting the worlds of fashion and design,” Roche explained. 
  • Missoni Home incorporated its now-iconic zigzags with floral graphic fabrics to give Mah Jong a fresh new look, channeling the ideas of elegance and exuberance that are hallmarks of Italian fashion, Roche noted. 

The Roche Bobois best-seller is also now available in an outdoor version. It retains the modular combinations that made it a success but adapts them for outdoors. Furthermore, the 50th anniversary collection includes indoor wood veneer bases for raised seating—platforms that sit on slightly recessed legs, creating the illusion of floating cushions. Along the back, a sleek piece shaped like an aircraft wing holds the cushions in place, a new design that Roche said is true to the identity of the Mah Jong, “making it more modern than ever.” 

With flexibility in furniture and interiors more popular than ever, Mah Jong is sure to find a home anywhere freedom of form and function are desired.

Read next: Fixed Table Builds a Bridge to Collaboration

About the Author

Janelle Penny | Editor-in-Chief BUILDINGS

Janelle Penny has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with a special emphasis on covering facilities. She aims to deliver practical, actionable content for her readers.

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