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Elegant yet elusive: The history of the Chesterfield sofa

There is no doubt that the Chesterfield sofa has earned its place as a furniture design icon. If somebody asked you to picture a sofa in a high-class establishment or home, there is a strong chance that you may be picturing the Chesterfield, even if you weren’t really aware of it.

Luxurious leather, deep button tufting, a low back, and rolled arms are all hallmarks of this classic style, which was once exclusively a staple feature of palaces, stately homes, and gentlemen’s clubs. Now, the Chesterfield has transcended its aristocratic roots and can be found in tastefully decorated homes around the world.

But where did it all begin? And how did it become the widely popular piece that it is today? Read on as we take a closer look at the history and heritage of the Chesterfield sofa, and how it has evolved to become one of the world’s favorite items of furniture.

Where did the Chesterfield sofa come from?

As with many good stories, the Chesterfield sofa comes from mysterious origins — in fact, it is impossible to say exactly where and when the first one was made. When you look back at the use of the word Chesterfield, it is apparent that the term began to be used to describe a sofa in the 1800s, becoming more and more widespread as time went on.

Although there is no certifiable story of its origin, the most widely known and quoted is that the tufted sofa style was first commissioned in Britain by Lord Philip Stanhope, the fourth Earl of Chesterfield, bestowing it with his name. The story goes that the Earl wished to have a chair in which a gentleman could sit comfortably without creasing the garments he was wearing, so he commissioned a local craftsman to come up with a solution that met his requirements — a proto-Chesterfield being the end result.

If there is truth to this tale, the Chesterfield could hardly have had a more refined originator to match its upper-class credentials. Lord Philip Stanhope was a wealthy member of the UK's ruling elite, a noted politician and writer, and also remembered as something of a fashionable trendsetter at the time.

An illustration of Chesterfield House in 1760. Philip Stanhope built the house in 1752 and resided there until his death, making it the possible birthplace of the first sofa. It was demolished in 1937.

He also advocated the importance of gentlemanly learning and conduct to his illegitimate son, later collected and published in Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman (1774). As the Earl placed so much value in being a respected and fashionable gentleman, it does not seem too farfetched to think that he was also responsible for giving the world a sofa that had an original purpose of keeping the creases out of a man’s suit. It also seems fitting that someone so concerned with gentility and etiquette would go on to give the world one of its most distinguished and elegant pieces of furniture.

There is also a second story about the Earl which may explain how the Chesterfield chair began to be replicated as a style. On his deathbed, Lord Philip said, ‘Give Mr Dayrolles a chair’, which his butler interpreted as instruction that the not-yet-famous chair should be given to his godson, Mr Dayrolles, who had come by to visit him in his ill health.

After transporting the chair back to his own home, Mr Dayrolles displayed it prominently for visitors to admire. If this story is true, it isn’t difficult to imagine the friends and associates of the Earl’s godson having their own versions of the original made, marking the spread of the style.

The Victorian Chesterfield sofa

While sofas had been around since the 1690s, they did not really see an explosion in popularity until the 1800s, when comfort became a prominent requirement from furniture — before this, functionality and appearance had taken precedence as preferred qualities.

It seems unlikely that the style of Chesterfield sofa that we know and love today came directly from the Earl of Chesterfield. Even the sofas made soon after his death were probably far removed from the contemporary look.

Early models were stuffed with horsehair and had tufting to keep the hair in place. The lack of sprung cushioning probably meant that these earlier models were a lot more uncomfortable to sit upon than later sprung models. Likewise, the button tufting applied to the upholstery was probably also less comfortable, with the tougher leather and lack of cushioning meaning that they most likely dug into the skin of anyone sitting on the couch. An interesting theory about the buttons on the early chairs is that they were included to make unwanted visitors who were waiting to see the Earl more uncomfortable, discouraging them to wait too long for an audience.

The button tufting that we find on contemporary Chesterfield sofas didn’t really become fashionable until the Victorian era, and the coiled spring was not patented until 1828. Both of these features would have improved the comfort of the sofa tenfold, moving them closer to the cozy experience offered by today’s Chesterfields. The first examples of something we would vaguely recognize as a modern-style Chesterfield probably didn’t appear until at least the mid-1800s.

Chesterfield chairs in the bar of the Savile Club in London.

The sofa soon became a firm favorite in the homes of Britain’s wealthy aristocrats, with the most popular trends being to have them upholstered in either velvet or leather. After becoming a popular fixture of many Victorian living rooms, the sofas made their way into the gentleman’s clubs of London, where they provided somewhere for some of the era’s most affluent men to sit and discuss matters of importance. The clubs were very exclusive, providing a venue to relax, mix with friends, play parlor games, eat a meal and, in some clubs, to stay overnight.

Chesterfield sofas and chairs featured prominently throughout almost all of these Victorian gentlemen’s clubs, some of which are still active today. You can actually visit historic clubs in London, such as White’s (established in 1693) and the Carlton Club (established in 1832), and see that the Chesterfield style still plays a huge part in the décor and heritage of their interiors. Many of the sofas and chairs are original antiques, which is a testament to the enduring popularity and durability of the design.

Perhaps the most famous Chesterfield sofa from the period was the one in the office of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. His revolutionary theories and techniques came out of a realization that more success could be had by allowing his patient to lie back and speak freely of their thoughts, feelings, and dreams, without fear of censorship or reproach. He would get his patients to lie down and talk, while he sat out of their eye-line and took notes about what they said. A key factor in the success of this therapy was creating a space where the patient felt comfortable and safe — something the psychoanalyst’s sofa played an important role in achieving.

Freud is believed to have owned a number of sofas over the course of his lifetime, and the only one that has been preserved is the one he owned in his later life, which is divan-style and displayed at the Freud Museum in London. However, thanks to his pioneering work, the use of a Chesterfield in the offices of Victorian psychologists became commonplace, and it is a location in which are still used widely to this day.

With the help of his trusty Chesterfield, Freud worked out the theory of psychoanalysis, going on to provide therapy for many famous faces of the era who underwent therapy — lying back on his sofa and talking about their lives. The Chesterfield became synonymous with his work, and will probably always be heavily associated with the practice of psychoanalysis.

Sigmund was not even the last Freud to have their work associated with this style of sofa, as they even showed up again in the work of his artist grandson, Lucien Freud. Lucien painted many figures posing against the dark background of a leather Chesterfield sofa throughout his career in the 20th century, perhaps most memorably in the 1988 work, Bella and Esther, which pictures his two daughters relaxing together on a sofa.

The rise in popularity

As the Empire expanded and the British armed forces established new colonies and frontiers, they brought the values they thought embodied the country with them as they went. This also extended to the styles and fashions that were popular at the time, which were exported to try to create a home away from home for British subjects.

The Chesterfield sofa was one of these exports that was introduced to the territories, and it was possible to see examples of the style in locations as far-flung as Canada, India, and Australia. Due to the great power and wide reach of the Empire at its peak during this period, the Chesterfield was soon able to become a global design icon.

The style was so widely regarded as the archetypal sofa in Canada that the word ’Chesterfield’ came to be the term of reference for any sofa with any design. The word is still used to mean this today, but is now generally regarded as a dying phrase that will eventually be completely replaced by the term ‘couch’ — which has long been favored here in America.

By the time the British Empire was at its peak in the 1920s, the Chesterfield had become a quintessential style icon of the age. No self-respecting gentleman’s home would be found without at least one of these sofas, where they gave the partying middle-class a comfortable place to sit and relax throughout the decade known as the ‘Roaring Twenties’.

Chesterfield sofas in the lobby of the Melbourne Windsor Hotel, Australia © Donald Y Tong - licence

Even after the end of the British Empire, the Chesterfield had left its mark, with the imported style becoming synonymous with luxury and quality for interior designers around the world. The sofa’s elegant looks saw it adopted by many prominent American businesses, such as hotels, restaurants, and offices, among many others. You can find Chesterfields in many high-class lobbies, reception areas, and bars to this day — places that need a refined décor to match the premium services that they offer their customers.

The Chesterfield sofa today

Once a status symbol, the Chesterfield sofa has now established itself as a highly desirable addition to many homes and businesses throughout America and the rest of the world. The sofa is admired for the timeless style and distinguished air that it can add to the interior design of a building, where it can work with any type of décor — from the more traditional to the very modern. It is simply one of those pieces of furniture that will never go out of fashion.

Over the years, the Chesterfield has been developed and reimagined in many inventive ways. It has been recreated in a vast range of different materials, from textured and antiqued leathers to smooth velvets and neutral linens. What is evident from all of these different design ideas is that they are still able to hold on to that classic style that made them so popular hundreds of years ago.

Here at Sofas by Saxon, we have been producing authentic British Chesterfield sofas, chairs, sleeper sofas, sectional sofas and footstools for over 30 years in our UK workshop, where we put a huge amount of time and effort into making sure our Chesterfield furniture lives up to the amazing heritage of the style.

Our skilled team still use many of the traditional handmade techniques practiced by generations of furniture makers, allowing us to produce both fabric and leather Chesterfields that will stand the test of time. However, as well as preserving the original spirit of the sofa, we have also looked to update many of our designs to suit modern tastes. So, whether you're after a velvet Chesterfield sofa or sleeper sofa, or you're looking for a Chesterfield in gray, blue, or black, we'll be able to accommodate your needs. We'll also deliver straight to you in the US, so you can have a genuine British Chesterfield right at home. Just take a look at our international delivery FAQs and request a delivery quote to get started.