From a series written for ABC Radio National’s Blueprint for Living. The Chesterfield sofa was first aired on 19th November 2022. You can listen to the audio here.
If furniture can be assigned a gender then the Chesterfield sofa is blatantly male. With its muscular rolled arms and low back, it speaks of gentlemen’s clubs and colonial times and while that may appeal to some, that patriarchal quality gives the sofa an air that many dislike. Yet its popularity seems never to have waned.
The name seems defiantly English. In England Chesterfield is the Derbyshire town whose church has a famously wonky spire. It’s also a county in America, after which a brand of cigarettes was named. There’s a Chesterfield coat, too, the sort with a velvet collar so loved by city gents wanting to cut a dash. It’s a name, then, that seems inherently male, stylish but somewhat cold.
And yet it’s difficult not to be charmed by the story of how the sofa came about. As is often the case, it starts with a British toff, Lord Stanhope, the fourth Earl of Chesterfield (the sixth earl came up with the coat, by the way). As a diplomat and general man about town, in the mid 1700s he needed something his visitors could sit on in his grand Mayfair mansion. It was important that it wasn’t too comfortable, which could mean they might overstay their welcome, but it needed to be more accommodating than a plain wooden bench. What was made was a leather sofa with rolled arms and back of the same height, the back low so that it wouldn’t crease the sitter’s clothing. While it looked inviting, the seat was firm and fairly flat. This was not a sofa to sink into but to perch on. And yet it seems that everyone who saw it thought it such a grand idea that they wanted one for themselves.
Over the following century, it evolved, gaining the deep buttoning that’s become an intrinsic part of its design, and even feather seat cushions for extra comfort. The shape remained the same, though. Upholstered in hide, it had a sober practicality that seemed perfect for gentlemen’s clubs with no hint of soft cushioning or any other sissy nonsense. A Chesterfield was for men and would certainly never be found in a ladies’ boudoir. At least not for a while.
The upholstery of the sofa, with its quilted and buttoned leather and horsehair stuffing, was similar to that used in carriages and, later, in the first motorcars. The confluence of practicality and simple shape helped make the sofa as suitable for a boardroom as a library. And then things started to soften. Fabric covering made it more comfortable, for a start, and when the buttoning was reduced or even eliminated then the whole thing was softer still. By the 1970s, it was gently subverted, no longer the stiff sofa of a gentleman’s study but, covered in velvet or a William Morris floral print, perfect for the contemporary sitting room. It became (gasp) almost feminine.
While it’s a piece that really needs to be handmade to be made properly, it’s also become mainstream. Scaled up, so that its arms and back reach neck height or higher, it becomes positively luxurious. And with buttons made of crystal or gold, then it becomes almost glamorous. Its adaptability means it’s often referred to as the mother of all sofas, its basic shape visible in so many sofa designs today. The fashion for buttoning even gave a heritage twist to modern classics such as Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chairs of the 1920s.
While the Chesterfield might seem overly conservative today, becoming a cliché of refinement and good taste, it played an important part in the development of domestic design. A timeless classic, certainly, but one that is always ready to be redefined.