Cozying up on the sofa is a pretty standard activity of modern leisure, but the comfortable piece of furniture on which to do it is a relatively recent invention. Historian Joan DeJean dates the innovation of what has become a staple of modern living to the 1680s and says that prior to that time, seated furniture was designed more for practicality than for comfort. As the Western world grew more comfortable with “comfort,” multiple variations of furniture designed for intimacy and comfort developed in rapid succession. We offer a quick guide below to the various styles of great seating born in the age of comfort.
The Settee & Canapé
The first iterations of the settee were really a double-backed armchair, or even an elegant bench. The earliest version was developed in England during the Tudor period and the first designs were made of oak and often had a pew-like look. As social norms and styles evolved during the latter half of the 17th century, with a focus on privacy and comfort, settees became larger and made more comfortable with the addition of cushions and upholstery, mimicking cozy French Bergeres. The French term Canapé (1684) is often used interchangeably with a settee.
The Chaise Longue
Literally “long chair” in French, the chaise longue was the one of the first iterations from upright seating to relaxed comfort. The chaise was an evolution from the chair to the daybed, as styles and social norms of later 17th century celebrated more intimacy, relaxation and privacy. During the latter half of the 17th century, the notion of putting one’s legs up and getting comfortable became the rage (and as time progressed, it would also become the scandal).
Variations on the daybed date back to the ancient Egyptians. The daybed is made for both sitting and reclining. It’s characteristic “two headboards” imply that it was meant for sharing, and was often placed against a wall, often times having an unfinished back. Early daybeds were made of wood, but later variations were also made of iron and better for outdoor placement. During the 19th century, daybeds began to replace the chaise longue in interior spaces. It was French furniture makers who gave the daybed the design we think of today.
The Meridienne was a variation of the daybed and marked by two back supports of unequal height (sometimes open-ended) connected by a downward sloping back. Meridienne’s were small, stylish, and meant for reclining.
The chaise longue and the daybed experienced a resurgence of popularity in the early 19th-century when Juliette Recamier, a literary and political socialite, was seen in repose one one of her favorite seats. The French began to call this seat “the Recamier” in response.
The Chesterfield is an iconic design – this one was named for Phillip Dormer Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, who was born just before the turn of the 18th century. Legend has it that he commissioned the first sofa of this design. A longtime symbol of luxury and a common feature of wealthy drawing rooms, the Chesterfield is defined by its tufted leather back and high, scrolled arms. Still produced today, and ever the symbol of classic taste, Chesterfields now have a more democratic reach.
Although seemingly a very contemporary idea, the sectional sofa has a much longer history, dating back to the mid-19th century. As a means to get comfortable seating through small entryways and up narrow stairwells the concept of “sections” that could latch together was developed. The first pieces adhered to the aesthetics of its time, of course, and looked little like our current notion. It was in the mid-20th century that the contemporary L-shaped model, designed to hug two walls of a living room, emerged and became a mainstay of many homes.
As with other types of furniture, the sofa enjoyed a renaissance of wide-ranging design concepts in the 20th century, not all of them serviceable enough to be adopted by a mass market. The Tuxedo, an exquisitely modern and resilient design, came about in the 1920s and has the same namesake as the penguin suit—Tuxedo Park, a classy hamlet in upstate New York. High, flat armrests and a square back are the defining features of this sleekly designed sofa, variations of which are still being produced today.