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Where The Chesterfield Design Comes From

Curvaceous legs. Smooth velvet softness, and damask decorated with flowers. A gently sloped back, that gives way to generously fuller curves and a detailed, stippled body. Dressed in gold or turquoise, gushing with effortless extravagance. We’re not talking about a fashion model strutting the catwalk.  We’re talking about furniture from the 1800’s.

The sofas, settees, and chairs of more than 170 years ago were a treat for the eyes, mostly. Furniture makers, trend-setters that mimicked the much-admired Grecian style, the Roman empire, and the golden-inlayed pieces of Egyptian Pharaohs, crafted beautiful pieces of furniture. But they weren’t necessarily a treat for the human body, but rather a visual display of one’s extravagance. That’s what makes the Chesterfield sofa’s design so enduring and sought after – it is comfortable as it is visually appealing.

The Chesterfield sofa design, with distinctively deep-buttoned, tufted upholstery, has been adapted to and molded by the comings and goings of Kings, Queens, and revolutions. But how did the Chesterfield come to be? And what is it that made the Chesterfield so popular then, as it is today? Why is the Chesterfield the world’s most recognizable sofa?

WHOSE SOFA IS THIS?

Ask around and you’ll learn the Chesterfield design unofficially belongs to one British Lord Stratton, fourth Earl of Chesterfield.

By all accounts, Lord Stratton reached the limit of his patience with the English obsession over Grecian, Roman, and Egyptian design. Rather than hunch over his books and parchments, he wanted to sit upright—on strong leather, preferably, which everyone knew eventually fit itself to a man’s form. The kind that gains a beautiful patina that only years of gracious aging could bring.

He wanted a firm shelf upon which he could rest an arm, after writing for many hours. He wanted a sofa that looked tailored and unwrinkled like the suits his status as Earl required him to wear every day. In his frustration, he came up with the first sofa that was designed for the Englishman, one who wanted comfort to match luxury, at that.

His eventual creation? The Chesterfield, of course, with its high back, rolled arms, and tufted upholstery.

COOL STORY, EXCEPT…

In truth, it’s unlikely that the Earl was truly responsible for the creation of the Chesterfield as we know it. Why do we say this? A few reasons.

First and foremost, the style of button tufting we associate with the traditional Chesterfield was not common in the Earl’s time. To ensure the longevity of an even and comfortable sit, tufting was a handsome and effective way to keep horsehair stuffing neatly in place. For an example, look to our Hemingway and Langston pieces; however, that deep button tufting you will see did not emerge until the 19th century – well after the good Earl of Chesterfield had passed.

 Even so, it takes more than mere tufting to define a Chesterfield. Today, the Chesterfield sofa can be so much more than just a tufted leather sectional with a nail head trim, the type that the Earl of Chesterfield might have commissioned. With paints and prints featuring our beloved Chesterfield sofa finally appearing in the mid-19th century, we can gaze back at the ancestral roots of this classic and appreciate how far we’ve come.

LET’S TAKE A LOOK

Elizabeth Chesterfield Sofa in Beige Leather

The first image of a Chesterfield sofa, dated 1857, appears in a James Roberts painting of Queen Victoria’s drawing room at the Balmoral Castle. The damask travels along opulent, roll-top arms, a low back, and what appears to be graciously deep button tufting. True to her legacy, Queen Victoria’s Chesterfield looks about as humble and conspicuous as the rest of her influence.

Looking introspectively, the Chesterfields in the Balmoral drawing room are strikingly similar to our Elizabeth Chesterfield design (right). We see these elegant sofas as straight from the taste of Queen Victoria herself. Overtly curved arms and a highly aristocratic touch suggests more luxurious and curvy Chesterfields, such as our beloved Elizabeth, tend to be drawn from inspirations of the Victorian era.

The Riley: High Back Scroll Arm Tufted Chesterfield Love Seat in Echo Cognac Leather

Shortly thereafter, a photo of the old library, or Bow Room in Buckingham palace 1860, displays a low-profile Chesterfield sneakily hiding out in the bottom left. With scrumptious roll-top arms and an extremely subtle tight seat, this palace Chesterfield, in my opinion, looks to be the most comfortable of the bunch, and is where I’d take my nap.

Small, slight, but undeniable, our closest relative to the Bow Room Chesterfield is the acutely similar Riley. Though the Riley design we’ve cultivated over the years has evolved a high back, the remnants of English inspiration cling to its edges.

Elizabeth Mont Blanc Citrine

Ten years later, we see another Chesterfield in Frederick Walker’s 1867 illustration for a Thackeray novel, Philip. with the sofa situated in an early Aesthetic movement interior — note the stylized floral wallpaper and the lushly patterned rug.

Between Victoria’s mad-for-plaid country castle and the Aesthetic parlor, the versatility of the Chesterfield was clearly apparent even in the mid-1800s. We can see again the curved, gently sloped back rolling into smooth arms that is once again reminiscent to the Elizabeth. However, now we like to stand out.

1895 chesterfield old chesterfield sofa
1895 chesterfield advertisement
Langston High Back Scoop Arm Chesterfield Hand-stained in Rubino Leather
Fitzgerald Tufted Chesterfield Three Cushion Sofa in Burbanks Currant Velvet

While we see many forms of the Chesterfield throughout the 19th century, the first recorded usage of the word “Chesterfield” was not until 1900. Confusing the matter further, Canada uses the word chesterfield interchangeably for any type of couch. In the UK, Chesterfield now describes any deep buttoned sofa, usually made from leather, with arms and back of the same height.

Despite its 18th- and 19th-century roots, the Chesterfield seems to adapt itself to a variety of modern interiors. Whether upholstered in leather or in velvet, a Chesterfield sofa represents the best of marriages, one between exceptional comfort and gentlemanly style.  It’s the kind of sofa that will bring elegance to any room, while also inviting us to plant ourselves against its tufted cushions, pick up a good book, and while away the hours lost in an adventure.

Post Series: All About Chesterfields
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