If our modern affinity for headphones and earbuds is any indication, the desire to muffle the outside world is fierce. Which begs the question: why not welcome the wingback chair, a champion cocoon-er if there ever was one, back into our interiors? Long liberated from its fusty connotations, the wingback chair has become a vehicle for raucous pattern, color, and an overall sense of irreverence. Pair that with its high, shielded sides that could almost be likened to horse blinders for humans, and you may very well have the perfect seat. If you’ve been toying with the notion of adding a wingback chair to your space, but question if it’ll look too much like a musty museum artifact, you’ll likely be surprised to discover how gracefully it’s spanned the centuries. Read on to learn all about this classic seat!
What is a Wingback Chair?
First known as the “easie” or “cheeked” chair, wingbacks are generally upholstered armchairs featuring a high back, a low seat, and wrap-around “wings” that encase the occupant’s head. Their most distinguishing feature, is of course, the wings, which are also known as “cheeks,” or “lugs.” The wings are mounted to the back of the chair and occasionally extend down to the armrest. Wingbacks were originally designed to hug a room’s fireplace. The wings were intended to buffer occupants from drafts—a common fluke before 20th century central heating and insulated glazing became the norm—as well as to trap the heat emanating from the hearth.
Historical references date the wing chair to the late 16th century England, but it didn’t make a prevalent appearance until after the Restoration, sometime between 1660 and 1680. Its appearance coincides with a period of revolutionary progress in English cabinetmaking. A general increase in the technical skill of cabinetmakers led to a number of new forms of furniture, including the daybed and an upholstered armchair known as the sleeping chair. Research by the Victoria and Albert Museum suggests that the wing chair is a direct descendant of the sleeping chair. Inarguably coffin-like, the sleeping chair is notable for its two large, stiff rectangular side pieces that frame the back of the chair. These pieces could be adjusted to move forward and backward, much like a recliner.
The wingback may take its foundational cues from the sleeping chair, but it eschews its box-like appearance for 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.
How Has the Wingback Evolved?
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.
3 Essential Wingbacks
Queen Anne Wingbacks
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.
Tufted Leather Wingbacks
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.
Mid-Century Modern Wingbacks
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. Matching footstools became de rigueur. One of the most famous modern wing chairs is the Egg Chair 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 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.
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Lead design by Ashley Gilbreath Interiors