Like most ephemera associated with the bygone tobacco dens known as gentlemens’ clubs, the club chair has wrestled with its place in contemporary society. Is it a relic too outmoded to experience a revival? Or is it a piece that, with a bit of tweaking, can settle successfully into modern interiors? To help you decide, we’re delving into the history of this comfort throne and shining a light on the many ways designers are lifting its members-only connotations and giving it a new (all-inclusive) lease on life.
What is a club chair?
Few chairs, save the contentious recliner, take such an unabashedly hedonistic approach to relaxation. Featuring a sunken seat, low back, wide armrests, and sumptuously-stuffed silhouette, the club chair is a seat that greets the weary with the promise of repose—not to mention, the perfect place to perch a heady libation. Upping the club chair’s luxury, these chairs were almost exclusively outfitted in leather.
Much like the cigar-laced clubs that once hosted them, the club chair’s origins are a bit hazy. Most believe that the club chair is a relatively neoteric invention, having cropped up in France in the early 20th century. Christened “fauteuil confortable,” which translates to “comfortable chair,” the club chair was immediately adopted by gentlemens’ clubs; dimly-lit and grandiosely-decorated dens that catered to men looking to clock a few hours away from the fam. Club chairs, plump and pillow-y, offered just the home-away-from-home experience that many were seeking.
How has the club chair evolved?
Not all club chairs need club you over the head with their masculine energy, of course. Since its inception, the club chair has undergone an array of transformations, including those which toned down the original club chair’s ample proportions.
As Art Deco architecture took hold in the 1920s, for instance, designers took a more rounded, streamlined approach to the form. Swedish designers, in particular, applied an automotive-like eye to the club chair and rolled out examples that nixed the traditional squared-off arms in favor of swooping half-circle arms edged in lacquered-til-shining veneers. They also switched out leather upholstery for mohairs and velvets that better showed off fashion-forward details like channel-tufting.
When gentlemens’ clubs began shuttering to make room for less exclusionary venues, the club chair had its own coming-out party of sorts. Barreling out of basement-like lairs, the club chair took its place in public spaces like libraries and hotel lobbies. As hospitality floor plans became increasingly open, club chairs’ high sides and dropped seats offered a cellular refuge for reading, contemplating—or just waiting out that room turnover— without interruption.
While some mid 20th century designers experimented with the club chair silhouette—Le Corbusier’s LC3 chair being a prolific example—most designs of the era skewed too sculptural to qualify as traditional club chairs. The 1980s, however, saw a redux of sizable silhouettes, not to mention, a fascination with Art Deco, which teed up the perfect climate for the club chair’s comeback.
How do you use a club chair in today’s interiors?
In today’s interiors, designers are less likely to use leather club chairs in multiples, choosing instead to sequester them away in a defined reading nook or library. Simple rules of proportion dictate that club chairs go stag in most rooms, but the more powerful truth is that a club chair stationed solo is perhaps the most inviting. Annexed in a nook, or even situated kitty-corner to a fireplace, a club chair offers the promise of uninterrupted seclusion—a discussion-free detox, if you will,—heightening its appeal.
Those wondering if it’s possible to oust the club chair from its king of corners connotations should consider a modified version of the club chair. Club chairs with open-air arms, bucket-style seats, or scalloped backs all project a lighter presence, making them ideal for use in pairs in main living spaces. Outfitted in a printed upholstery, be it a maritime stripe, cheeky Chinoiserie print, or classic tree of life textile, a club chair can take on an exhibitionist quality that demands to be a part of the living room conversation pit. Still not convinced? Try one of the club chair spin-offs below.
3 Club Chair Spin-Offs to Know
Parsons Club Chair
During his partnership with furniture echelon Drexel Heritage, Mid-Century modernist Milo Baughman famously reimagined the club chair as a Parsons-style seat. Showcasing open-side arms and legs that form a perfect perpendicular angle, the Parsons club chair is a sleek-lined take on the classic club chair and perfect for deploying in pairs. Milo Baughman’s Parsons club chairs for Drexel incorporated a rounded barrel back and ruching at the center of the back, but stick to more classic Parsons silhouettes if you’re looking for a club chair to outfit in a dramatic fabric. Legend has it that when French designer Jean-Michel Frank challenged his students to make the table that ultimately became the Parsons table, he requested a table so basic it could be sheathed in any material on the market and maintain its stylistic wits.
Safari Club Chair
For his 1933 Safari chair, Danish Modernist and wayfarer Kaare Klint was inspired by the foldable campaign-style seats that he witnessed westerners toting with them on African safaris. Although the design was already antiquated by the time Klint happened upon it—campaign chairs had been utilized by British armies for decades—the designer felt the form it was fit for a reinvention. Featuring a simple wood frame outfitted with panels of leather to create the chair’s back and seat, and leather straps fashioned to function as the chair’s arms, the Safari chair packs all the masculine energy of a traditional leather club chair, but in a pared-down form that makes it endlessly accessible.
English Roll Arm Club Chair
A design that pre-dates the club chair can’t technically be inspired by it, but that doesn’t make the English roll arm chair any less of a suitable sub for a club chair. Especially if you’re looking to pin down a design that pays close homage to the classic club chair while paring down its generous proportions, the English roll arm fits the definition to a tee. Characterized by a gently sloped back, low curved arms, and meticulously tailored upholstery, the English club chair adheres to the same comfort creed as the traditional club chair, while offering a lower barrier to entry (literally— those low arms make slipping in and out a breeze). Decked out in a sprawling print, the English roll arm is the antithesis of the one-time tobacco throne, yet would complement a moody, paneled den just as nicely.
Lead photo by Jessica Comingore