Design Geek: 3 Unsolved Mysteries of the Chesterfield Sofa

AphroChic: 3 Unsolved Mysteries of the Chesterfield Sofa

Design Fieldnotes

The first criteria of a classic is that it be timeless. Whether a year old or a century, brand new or antique, the impact of the piece must be the same the next time you see it as it was the first. Timelessness, however, has its cost, and many of the details surrounding the creation of a classic piece can be lost to time―answers filled in with hearsay and myth in places where actual history is lacking. But that isn't always so bad. Everyone loves a mystery. And when a piece is truly classic, a little mystery simply adds to its charm. 

Few pieces of furniture can lay claim to the title of classic, or fulfill the requirement of timelessness as well as does the vaunted chesterfield sofa. An iconic piece with hundreds of years of history behind it, more than a few mysteries have sprung up surrounding its origins, its construction and even its name. An exploration of these mysteries is an invitation to walk through history. And even if the process yields no hard answers, you might get something even better: new questions.

Where Did the Design Come From?

The first mystery of the chesterfield is where did the design actually come from? Compounding the confusion on this point is the fact that there is a wide range of pieces that are or can be called chesterfields for a variety of reasons. According to Paul Flemming, a furniture maker whose family business has been making chesterfields for generations, the proper definition of a chesterfield is, "a sofa with the arms and back at the same height". To this general description can be added the signature flourishes for which the original chairs were known. These include a "distinctive deep buttoned, quilted leather upholstery and low seat base," along with, "rolled arms...and nailhead trim".

Design Geek: 3 Unsolved Mysteries of the Chesterfield Sofa
Alex Blank Fabrics

Was It a Royal Commission?

Though likely not commissioned by a member of the royal family, one of the most popular legends surrounding the provenance of this classic chair attributes it's a creation to one Philip Dormer Stanhope―diplomat, author, and 4th Earl of Chesterfield, who was connected to the king by marriage. This version of the story maintains that Stanhope, a well-known fashionista and patron of the arts, had the chair commissioned from a local craftsman. However it does not suggest whether it was the craftsman or the Earl who first developed the innovative design. The legend goes on to imply that the point at which the iconic design became public was on Stanhope's deathbed in 1773. In his last words, he commanded an attendant to give his final visitor, a lifelong friend, and fellow diplomat, Solomon Dayrolles, a chair. As Chesterfield died after uttering this final request, the attendant was left to interpret his deceased employer's meaning for himself. We are given to believe that the outcome of his deliberations saw Mr. Dayrolles lugging a large but luxurious chair back to his home, where it became so admired by his friends that it became a popular and thereafter a common design among the aristocracy. It's a great story. Unfortunately, no shred of evidence exists to suggest that it might actually be true. 

What Is the Chair for?

It may sound like an odd question since the purpose of a chair would seem to be more or less self-evident. But there have been numerous suggestions that different aspects of the chair's unique nomenclature were in fact designed for a specific purpose. One such story, building from the legend of Lord Chesterfield, claims that the Earl, known for his fastidious attention to manners and appearances, solicited the craftsman who made the first chesterfield because he wanted a chair that would allow a gentleman to sit in comfort without wrinkling his garments. A quite different tale suggests that the chair became popular with aristocrats specifically because the buttons that line the back of the seat made sitting in it uncomfortable. The chairs were used in the waiting rooms of the rich as a way to gently dissuade petitioners from staying too long.

Design Geek: 3 Unsolved Mysteries of the Chesterfield Sofa
Studio Ten25

Where Does the Name Come From?

This is a real mystery. The one that has continued to defy explanation even as the unflagging popularity of the chair and it's many offshoots have inspired furniture-lovers and historians of successive generations to take up the search for a definitive answer. Of course, the easiest answer is to go with the Stanhope legend. Yet even those sources―such as the Oxford Dictionary―which trace the use of the word for describing a form of seating to the 18th century, do not attribute the name or the chair to the Earl, even though he did live in the appropriate century. Perhaps the best reason for accepting the Stanhope story is that the others simply aren't as much fun.

One idea presents the possibility that the name refers to the technique of buttoning the leather, as well as the height of the seat and shape of the seat back. Though deep buttoning as a technique was not popular in leather at the time, rather velvet. Another theory points to the fact that "Chesterfield," was used as a general name for furniture of all sorts in the U.S. and Canada in the 18th century. Though it's possible that the terminology was carried along with the chair to England's colonial holdings by officers of the Royal Army. Finally, there is the possibility that the word was similarly widely used in England with no connection to Philip Stanhope or even to a particular type of sofa, as even today in England a Davenport sofa is often called a Chesterfield if the arms and back of the chair are at the same height.

Of course, the problem that every theory except the Stanhope story shares is that none of them offer any explanation as to why, "Chesterfield," a known surname, would be applied to furniture of any sort in the first place. Whatever the case may have been, for now, the mystery continues. And even those who have been part of the history of the chair have become resigned to the uncertainty as there appears to be no end in sight. "We have been making them for years," says Paul Fleming, "And we have been to museums and done lots of research and we can't find a single piece of paper to explain its origin".