If there’s a wing chair in the room, someone is sitting in it. A showcase of style, status, and comfort, the enduring design is often the most sought-after seat within four walls. Moreover, having withstood hundreds of years of interior trends, the wingback chair has firmly established itself as a total classic that suits all manners and styles of homes, offices, and public spaces.
The wing chair, which was first known as the “easie” or “cheeked” chair, is generally upholstered and has a high back, a low seat, and signature side pieces. The distinguishing feature of a wing chair is these side pieces—also known as “wings,” cheeks, or lugs—which are mounted to the back of the chair and often, but not always, stretch down to the armrest. Originally designed as a fireplace companion, wing chairs were created to protect the sitter from cold drafts (which were common before 20th Century central heating and insulated glazing came around), as well as to trap the heat from a roaring fire.
In addition to having a pervasive presence in residential interiors, the wing chair has also become a bit of a pop culture icon. From the pair of red leather wingback armchairs favored by Morpheus and Neo in The Matrix, to the two wing chairs used by rivals of pedophilic love Quilty and Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, to boardroom wing chair availed by president-elect Donald Trump in reality TV show The Apprentice, the wing chair has found its place in film and literature, often symbolizing power and corruption.
Historical references date the chair back to the late 16th century England, but it didn’t make a prevalent appearance until after the Restoration, sometime between 1660 and 1680, a time when there was almost revolutionary progress in English cabinetmaking. A general increase in the technical skill of cabinetmakers led to a number of new forms of furniture, also including the daybed, an upholstered armchair called a sleeping chair, and various kinds of writing furniture.
Research by the Victoria and Albert Museum suggests that the wing chair is a direct descendant of the sleeping chair, an almost coffin-like design marked by two large, stiff rectangular side pieces framing the back of the chair, which could be adjusted to move forward and backward, much like a recliner.
Beyond a more open structure than its predecessor, another notable update of the wingback chair was the addition of curves. A departure from Puritanism, which in many ways sought to shield natural femininity, the introduction of curves—in this case, a curved back, wings, and cabriole legs—paralleled other post-Puritan celebrations of the female form, such as corsets and peplums in fashion in the day.
In its earliest incarnations, as well as today, there were and are numerous variations of the style and form of a wingback chair. Take, for instance, the top (back) rail of a wing chair: While most have curves, some are more elaborate or subdued than others, having scrolled, arched, or more simplistic shapes. Likewise, wing silhouettes have run the gamut, from fancy scrolled styles to a more classic S-shape to, later on in the mid-20th century, sleek and straight.
With the exception of some Mid-Century Modern and contemporary iterations, the frame of a wingback chair has been consistently crafted with a solid beech wood frame. This wood, commonly used in upholstered items, is ideal for securing upholstery tacks in close proximity. Meanwhile, mahogany is most commonly used for legs.
Design choices like upholstery fabric, wing shape, leg shape, tufting, nailhead, and back height allow quite a range of aesthetic style when it comes to a wingback chair, and in some cases, two different wing chairs might be so distinct they’re nearly unrecognizable kin. A wing chair found in a modern home in Palm Springs in the mid-20th Century—imagine slim teak legs and wool upholstery with minimal tufting—for instance, would be a distant cousin of one dating to George II 18th-Century England with walnut cabriole legs and needlepoint upholstery.
Today, one of the most popular styles of wingback chairs is the Queen Anne style, which arose at the beginning of the 18th Century under, you guessed it, Queen Anne. Influenced by the contemporary furniture of the Netherlands, this style is much simpler in comparison to earlier styles, with simple, carefully curved lines and minimal carving or ornamentation. The Queen Anne—style also has cabriole legs, which were based on the curve of an animal’s leg with paw-inspired foot.
Masculine tufted leather wingback chairs, which look at home in a moody library or beside a cozy fireplace, are also extremely sought-after today. This look dates to Georgian England. Abounding in quality and style, tufted leather wingback chairs often had supple leather, brass nailhead trim, and luxurious carved walnut frames with intricate undercarriages. Subsequent styles, such as early 1900 Chippendale chairs, also had elaborate details like claw and ball feet and heavy carving. And later on, we saw more simplistic with square legs and H-stretchers at the base.
In the heyday of Mid-Century Modern design, there was more deviation from classic styles. Slender metal legs replaced rich legs, simplistic shells in performance fabric stood in for leather and jacquard upholstery, and matching footstools became de rigueur. One of the most famous modern wing chairs is the Egg Chair, designed by Danish designer Arne Jacobsen in 1958. Covered in nubby fabric or smooth leather, the wraparound chair on a chrome x-base, which at the time used state-of-the-art material, encompasses you, much like a little chick in an egg.
Needless to say, no matter what look you’re going for in your home or workspace, there is an inviting wingback chair out there for you, waiting to keep you warm, stylish, and looking as powerful as ever.
Featured Image: Adrian Pearsall Wingback Lounge Chair By Craft Associates