3 Amazing Chesterfield Sofa Mysteries That Have Stupefied Designers For Centuries

The standard definition of any kind of classic is that it is able to withstand the test of time. It doesn’t matter whether an item is just a year-old or 100 years-old, its impact should be the same: it looks like it’s brand-new.

This quality does not come without a cost. The whole creative process behind the classic design, along with its intricate details, are often lost to history. With enough time, a whole legend grows up around the classic design in place of facts.

On its face, this might seem like a bad thing, but if you think about it, this actually adds charm classic designs. A little bit of mystery can go a long way when it comes to a design’s overall mystique.

In the furniture world, very few pieces can be convincingly called classics. Timelessness is a very high standard to meet. Thankfully, most designers could agree that the Chesterfield sofa qualifies as a bona fide design classic.

It is quite an icon; its mystique and prestige continue to grow over the years. It is well over 100 years old, and its charm continues to grow and at the same time mystify over the decades. There are all sorts of questions regarding its back story, how it was made, and whether it was even named accurately.

Diving into any of these mysteries gives us a golden opportunity to explore the amazing history of furniture design. While hard answers are hard to come by, sometimes when people explore mysteries, it is better to expect new questions that may lead to a better understanding.

Was the Chesterfield sofa commissioned by royalty?

The most obvious mystery about the Chesterfield involves the provenance or ultimate source of its design. What confuses a lot of people about the central point is that there are a lot of furniture pieces that have been dubbed Chesterfields throughout the years.

What qualifies as a bona fide Chesterfield furniture piece? It depends on who you ask. Paul Fleming, a crafter of furniture with a long family history in the industry, defines Chesterfield’s this way: “A sofa with the arms and back at the same height.”

Upon examination of a wide range of Chesterfield pieces, we can see the utility of this general description. However, for it to be more helpful, you have to insist on adding a signature design flourishes that distinguished the first Cloverfield chairs. Among these features are “a distinctive deep button, quilted leather upholstery, and low seat base.” These are paired with “rolled arms and a nail head trim.”

Over the years, many legends have grown around the Chesterfield sofa design. One of these legends says that it was created upon the suggestion of the fourth Earl of Chesterfield, Mr. Philip Dormer Stanhope. Stanhope’s connection to the Chesterfield sofa takes a royal complexion because he was related to Britain’s king through marriage.

During his time, Stanhope had a reputation for being a fashionista and an eager patron of design arts. He selected a craftsman in his local area to produce this classic chair. While this legend seems straightforward, there is one missing crucial detail: who came up with the idea for the design?

All this long-standing legend truly brings to the table is dating. We know that the Chesterfield sofa was designed and produced sometime prior to Stanhope’s death, in the year 1773. In fact, according to legend, his last words to his attendant was to gift the last person to visit him, the diplomat Solomon Dayrolles, one of these iconic chairs.

This begs the question what kind of chair did the dying earl refer to? One thing is clear; the attendant was basically charged with having to interpret what Stanhope meant by his request. According to the legend, Mr. Dayrolles ended up transporting a bulky but luxurious and beautiful chair back to his residence.

This is when the Chesterfield sofa’s legend truly began to grow. Whenever people visited Mr. Dayrolles, they saw the sofa and liked its design so much, that it became quite popular among the aristocracy. People just passed on its design elements among themselves, and from this initial group of English aristocrats, it pretty much spread through the rest of Britain and continental Europe.

What is the original purpose for the chair? Another key question that we should wrap our minds around is counterintuitive. After all, chairs are obviously meant for sitting. However, given the unique design of the Chesterfield sofa, we have to examine what kind of purpose this specific design serve?

Throughout the years, there have been a lot of speculations regarding the sofa’s particular purpose. According to one story, the earl, being such a stickler for appearances, manners and decorum, instructed the original craftsman of the sofa to come up with the design that would allow a person to sit on it comfortably without that person’s clothes wrinkling.

A variation of the story claims that the chair became a hit with the English nobility because its deep-set buttons actually made sitting on the sofa uncomfortable. The aristocracy loved this soap because they can put it in their waiting rooms. People can see that they’re welcome because there’s a chair there, but it’s designed in such a way that they’re basically discouraged from hanging out for too long.

Where does this sofa get its name from? One of the oldest mysteries regarding the Chesterfield sofa is the history of its name. This is very tricky because the Chesterfield sofa design has many different variations. Some of these are localized.

Still, historians as well as furniture lovers have chased down several legends, and the one that comes of the most is the legend involving Mr. Stanhope, described above. One particularly strong source about the origins of the name of this sofa – the Oxford dictionary – doesn’t credit the earl as the source of the sofa’s name.

This is this is the case despite the fact that the Earl lived in precisely the same timeframe where experts agree the Chesterfield sofa originated. One alternative theory behind the name of this sofa involves the process of creating the buttons on its leather covering. There’s a name that describes the technique of handling the leather, shaping the seat, and shaping the seat back, as well as accounting for the height of the piece.

The problem with this theory is that deep buttoning was not actually a popular technique in leatherworking at the time of the invention of the Chesterfield sofa. Around that time, deep buttoning was usually applied to velvet. There goes that theory.

Another explanation refers to the usage of the term “Chesterfield.” In Canada and the United States, in the 1700s, the term Chesterfield was some sort of catch-all name for all types of furniture. This theory suggests that the term “Chesterfield sofa” was basically imported from England’s American and Canadian colonies by the returning Royal Army officers.

One final theory that is so worth discussing, is that is that the term Chesterfield already had wide usage in England. It was already popular and had absolutely no connection to a specific type of sofa, or Philip Stanhope. In fact, the typical English Davenport sofa is also referred to as a “Chesterfield” if the height of the back and arms of the unit are the same.

Except for the Stanhope theory, the problem with all these theories is that they don’t really give us a good explanation as to the name of this sofa. Chesterfield is a fairly well-established surname in Britain. Why would this name be associated with a specific piece of furniture? No matter how you cut it, the Chesterfield sofa continues to remain mysterious even to this day.

Even if you’ve done a lot of research regarding the design history of this chair, as well as its different design versions throughout the centuries, you’re still left wondering about key crucial issues. The bottom line is it will always remain a mystery, as Paul Fleming himself says, “We have been making them for years, 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.” The mystery continues and the Chesterfield sofa design remains a fascinating classic.

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