Courting sofas don’t typically make headlines these days, but a Kickstarter campaign that was successfully funded earlier this year just might change that. The project launched by the Springfield Art Association raised enough money to complete its restoration of the “Lincoln Courting Couch,” an Empire-style sofa witness to Abraham Lincoln’s courtship of Mary Todd. The 1830s horsehair sofa, which originally sat in the Springfield, Illinois, parlor of Todd’s brother-in-law, Ninian Edwards, is now part of the Association’s permanent collection at Edwards Place (though on loan to neighboring Iles House until the spring as Edwards Place undergoes its own restoration)
While this particular piece doesn’t boast the divisions of a true courting sofa, it does speak to a time when dating was a far more regulated affair. Popularized during the Victorian era, traditional tête-à-têtes were characterized by an S-shaped backrest, resulting in two opposite facing seats with a shared armrest between them. It allowed for couples to sit closely, face-to-face, whilst keeping a modest barrier between them.
In one dramatic example, interior designer Henri Samuel placed a three-seat tête-à-tête in the Verrières-le-Buisson estate of author and notorious seductress Louise de Vilmorin. The Victorian chair was part of Vilmorin’s legendary Salon Bleu, so named for Brunschwig & Fils’ iconic Verrieres fabric, a blue and white floral print that adorned every piece of upholstery and drapery in the room. It was a feat of design dubbed “one of the high-water marks of 20th-century decoration” in a 2009 New York Times article.
Another shining example, which seals the design’s place in decorative arts history, is a rosewood courting sofa by cabinetmaker J.H. Belter (c.1850-1860) that’s included in the permanent collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The ornate settee, on view in the American Wing, is part of an opulent display that recreates the Rococo Revival parlor of hat merchant Horace Whittemore as it was in his 1850s Manhattan home.
Even today, John Derian, contemporary arbiter of all things Victorian, has incorporated courting chairs into his furniture collection for Cisco Brothers. The range of more than 20 upholstery pieces draws heavily on 18th- and 19th- century English influences. The pièce de résistance? The aptly named Tête-à-Tête Chair.
Provenance may differ but one connection all courting sofas share is their sculptural quality. A bit of sleuthing will land you a range of styles from Louis to Windsor, Art Deco to Mid Century modern. Many contemporary examples, like Jeffrey Alan Marks’ 2725 for A. Rudin, maintain the historic reference of face-to-face seating while eliminating the center armrest. These later styles border on a daybed-like aesthetic and work brilliantly as the dividing point in generously sized living rooms where multiple seating areas are at play.
But not all 21st-century offerings embrace such grand scale. More intimate examples include interior designer Bruno de Caumont’s glossy white tête-à-tête. Know as much for his interiors as his sleek lacquered furniture, he upholstered the stylish piece in lemon yellow Edmond Petit velvet and gave it pride of place in the kitchen of his modern Brussels loft. In similar form, designers Johannes Foersom and Peter Hiort-Lorenzen created Rotor for Erik Jørgensen. It’s a space-age sofa that, depending on the placement of the backs, can transform from a traditional two-seater to a private tête-à-tête.
The many iterations of courting sofas suggest their boundless appeal in interiors of all styles. And while the Edwards’ storied courting sofa might be among the most famous of its kind, but the romance and style of any tête-à-tête ensures it will be a conversation-starter in any home—making the pursuit of heirloom-quality examples a worthy courtship indeed.