No living room or home library is complete without a cozy reading chair. You know the kind: It envelops you, looks perfect in a well-lit corner, and begs you to linger for hours with a dog-eared book and a warm cup of tea. But what, exactly, makes the ultimate reading chair?
The Perfect Reading Chair
For starters, the perfect reading chair is definitively comfortable. Unlike a 20-minute bar stool or one-hour dining chair, a truly great reading chair is one you can sit in for hours. American furniture designer Charles Eames once said, “You can’t tell if any chair is comfortable until you’ve occupied it for at least an hour—and then you should to return to it again and again in different moods.” Eames was right: sitting is the ultimate test, but there are a number of other factors to consider when it comes to a comfortable reading chair.
Comfort and Support
Usually upholstered, a reading chair should be relaxed yet supportive (not too laidback—save the dozing off for your sofa or chaise). A winning combination in a reading chair is a design with a high, firm back—to provide sufficient neck and back support while you read—and a comfortable, plush upholstered cushion for your seat. Midcentury-style chairs in particular tend to have low backs, so be sure to look at measurements to make sure you have somewhere to rest your head. As for cushions, a down cushion or a cushion with a down blend (50% or less) is recommended. As celebrity interior designer Emily Henderson once said, “A down cushion always helps to keep [a] chair looking nice and comfy for years to come.”
The ultimate reading share should also be covered in a soft, comfortable fabric that’s inviting yet durable, and not precious. Materials like velvet, twill, cotton, linen, and leather (which gets softer as it ages) are all great options for reading chair upholstery. If you’re planning to place your reading chair in a high-traffic room, or a space where kids and pets roam free, be sure to look for a performance fabric that protects against spills and stains from food and drinks. Dark leathers tend to wipe off easily with a cloth, too.
Arms are also a requisite of every reading chair, essential to helping you hold up your book or tablet while you read. The shape, style, and width of chair armrests can vary greatly, however, and will very much determine the look and feel of your chair. There are numerous types of arm styles to choose from, from a tight and narrow English arm, which is more traditional, to a chunky and rounded Lawson arm, which can be transitional, to a track arm, which is definitively modern. In addition to upholstered arms, wooden or metal arms are also an option for a reading chair (and both can be a nice choice for small spaces thanks to their slender profile). Arm style is really a subjective choice, so it all comes down to your personal style and the look you’re going for in your living room or library.
Oversized Reading Chairs
Some people prefer an oversized reading chair, as it can accommodate a big throw or blanket and a pillow or two. If you have a pet or kids who like to sit and curl up with you, a large reading chair is a worthy option. These days an extra-wide reading chair or armchair is sometimes referred to as a “chair and a half”—this means it’s smaller then a settee but bigger than your average reading chair. These are as inviting as they come.
If you have an extra-tall family member in the house or you just love to curl and put your feet up on your chair, a deep-seated reading chair may be the best option for you. However, if you’re not especially tall, and you like to keep your feet on the floor while you read, a deep seat could actually be uncomfortable, so consider how you plan to use your chair before you shop.
Unlike dining chairs, reading chairs generally look and feel more inviting when they have a shorter leg—tall enough so you can comfortably have your legs bent, as well as easily and comfortably stretch them out. A seat height of around 17”, give or take, is common. As you compare chairs, you may notice that a chunky leg tends to look more inviting and casual, while narrow legs look a little more formal. You should also consider the leg style of other furniture in your room—too many competing styles can feel disorderly, but all the same can look matchy-matchy.
Ottomans and Foot Stools
If you’re a serious reader—or, let’s face it, watch TV and movies for extended periods, choosing a reading chair with an accompanying ottoman may be wise. When you sit for long periods, these footrests can help to prevent swelling, as they raise your feet closer to your heart. If your ultimate reading chair doesn’t come with a matching footstool, don’t worry: you can always have one made or buy something that complements it.
Aesthetics and Style
Beyond the comfort-related factors of a reading chair, overall style is also of utmost importance. The best thing is that there is truly something for everyone out there, whether you’re looking for a new modern chair, a midcentury chair, an antique French chair, or something in between. Tufted reading chairs, like Chesterfield chairs, are a favorite because they have a tight back that has polish and provides support, as well as thick cushion that’s comfortable. However, it may be too feminine or European for your tastes. Midcentury Danish lounge chairs, on the other hand, are clean and sleek, but may feel too masculine or retro for your personal style. If you’re fearful about committing to a certain style, choose something with a transitional look and have fun with accents. You can always add contrast piping, nailhead trim, or even a simple throw pillow to jazz it up.
The perfect reading chair is one you’ll have for years to come—even if you reupholster it a few times in your lifetime. Whatever reading chair you choose, be sure it makes you feel like royalty whenever you sit down.
Written by Cate Shanks
Photo Credits (from top): Eric Piasecki for Katie Ridder and Peter Pennoyer Architects; Stephen Kent Johnson for Vito Schnabel; Lisa Romerein for Alex Hitz; Oberto Gili for Giovanni and Lucia Guarini; Stéphane Olivier; Nikolas Koenig for Ingrao Inc.