Why the ‘Mah Jong’ sofa is an enduring classic

Inspired by the Chinese game, this much-loved design set the standard for what a sofa could be more than fifty years ago

mah jong sofa
Michel Gibert

In the 1970s, laid-back, low-level furniture reigned supreme, and the ‘Mah Jong’ sofa by Roche Bobois was a trailblazer for the trend. Its German designer, Hans Hopfer, was also a painter and sculptor, and is regarded as the pioneer of ‘seating landscapes’: modular floor cushions that could be reconfigured at will to form customised seating arrangements.

mah jong sofa
Roche Bobois

The ‘Mah Jong’, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, is the most famous of Hopfer’s creative experiments. Inspired by the Chinese game mahjong, in which players compete to form sets of tiles, the sofa consists of three basic elements that can be combined or stacked to create anything from a lounge chair to a large sofa or bed. What made Hopfer’s idea radical was the way it placed the user in an interactive role, empowering them to become the designer.

It was born from a meeting between Hopfer and Philippe Roche, co-founder (with his brother François) of the Roche Bobois brand. Its success coincided with a surge in television ownership in the 1970s that was driving new attitudes to seating in the home: no longer a stiff parlour piece, the sofa had become an everyday essential, with comfort a priority.

mah jong sofa
Hans Hopfer’s original design for the ‘Mah Jong’
Roche Bobois

Fittingly for a design that has a strong fashion element, the ‘Mah Jong’ is made entirely by hand in an Italian workshop that crafts furniture in a similar way to haute couture. The mattress-style cushions are individually hand-stitched to create their signature plump quilting and precisely angled, intersecting shapes. This process gives an artisanal quality to the design that enhances its timeless appeal.

Roche Bobois is renowned for its spirit of creative freedom, collaborating with a range of international artists and fashion designers. It’s no surprise then, that the endless versatility of the ‘Mah Jong’ has been explored by venerated figures including Jean Paul Gaultier, Missoni Home and Kenzo Takada.

mah jong sofa
Kenzo Takada sits on his version of the ‘Mah Jong’ sofa, inspired by kimono fabrics
Eric Matheron-Balay

The latter designer’s East-meets-West elegance is the perfect match for this piece, his colourful upholstery fusing stripes and oriental florals. Other artists have pushed the boundaries even further: in 2015, French street artist Alias Ipin spray-painted himself against the sofa cushions, creating a ‘self portrait’ in silhouette. And in 2019, Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos highlighted the sofa’s playful nature with the addition of candy-coloured cushions shaped like boiled sweets.

It’s been spotted in the homes of A-list celebrities – fans include supermodel Gigi Hadid and rapper Drake – and at last year’s Oscars ceremony, offering cosy respite for the Hollywood elite. The VIP lounge at the award show’s screening in Union Station, Los Angeles, was designed by the Rockwell Group and featured the ‘Mah Jong’ in a newly launched guise.

mah jong sofa
The VIP lounge at the 2021 Oscars, designed by Rockwell Group
Spencer Lowell / Rockwell Group

Placed on a platform with recessed legs, it appears to be floating lightly above the ground, with ledges serving as side tables and updated upholstery by Roche Bobois’ long-time collaborators Jean Paul Gaultier, Missoni Home and Kenzo Takada.

Hopfer would go on to create several classic sofas for Roche Bobois, but the ‘Mah Jong’ remains the most celebrated – and is still a bestseller. To mark its half-century, it’s been reissued in exciting new formats that incorporate floating platforms, side tables and shelves. They’re proof that a great design always has the potential for reinvention. roche-bobois.com

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