The very definition of a timeless classic.
Chesterfield sofas are like the riding boots of the furniture world—they’ve got British roots, most famously come in rich brown leather, have been around for centuries yet continue to be relevant in both style and function, and are an object of the modern era’s fascination and as such have been reinvented multiple times in the past few decades.
The Chesterfield sofa is a distinctly recognizable furniture design—its high arms, and tufted leather upholstery the most notable features—that has been around for nearly 300 years. It’s spent most of its lifetime within the wood-paneled walls of English gentlemen’s clubs, aristocratic homes, and tony businesses (Queen Victoria and Sigmund Freud were both fans), but the Chesterfield has become a more widely sought after piece of furniture, being adapted for more modern spaces in the last few decades.
What Exactly Is A Chesterfield Sofa?
The Chesterfield sofa is one of the most popular and well-known sofa designs. In fact, in Canada (receiver of many British exports), the term chesterfield came to mean a sofa of any design. But when you’re talking about the original, here’s what that means: Simply put, a Chesterfield sofa is a large couch with rolled arms that are the same height as the back. A quintessential Chesterfield is upholstered in a dark leather, with deep button tufting all over and nailhead trim. More modern takes on the sofa typically lighten up the hefty original with velvet or other cloth upholstery, taller legs, and a slimmer back and arms.
So Where Did The Chesterfield Sofa Come From?
Though it’s not officially documented, furniture lore has it that in the mid-1700s Lord Philip Stanhope, fourth Earl of Chesterfield, commissioned a piece of furniture that became the ancestor of Chesterfields as we know them today. Lord Stanhope was an admired writer and politician, and apparently a known trendsetter of his time. As any proper gentleman would want, he requested a piece of furniture that would allow him to sit upright without wrinkling his suit.
The legend continues that on his deathbed, Lord Stanhope told his butler to “give Mr. Dayrolles a chair,” probably asking him to find a seat for his godson. But the butler wasn’t sure exactly what his deceased boss meant, so he literally gave the prototype to Mr. Dayrolles, who then showed off the design to his many houseguests, thus proliferating the trend.
It’s important to note that this early 18th century Chesterfield was likely very different from the ones we know today. The sofa design became quite popular during Queen Victoria’s reign (she even had her own plaid-covered versions in one of her castle’s drawing rooms), when furniture as a whole began to be made with a priority of comfort over function.
The coiled spring was invented in the mid-1800s, making seats significantly more comfortable than before. And for cushioning, 19th-century furniture was stuffed with horsehair, which was tamed and tailored by the button tufting. Chesterfields were typically covered in leather and rich velvet to match their grand surroundings. And so, a sofa that exemplified luxury and comfort was born—and quickly became a staple within the homes, businesses, and clubs of England’s aristocracy. Eventually the middle class seized the trend, recognizing its versatility and high-end look that would stand the test of time.
After 200 years of ubiquity, the Chesterfield sofa can truly be called a timeless classic. Whether upholstered in rich leather or patterned cloth, the design has been continuously reinvented to show that it belongs in many spaces other than dusty old gentlemen’s clubs. Check out some current traditional and modern takes on the classic design.