A house that does not have one worn, comfy chair in it is soulless. ~ May Sarton
There are chairs to sit in, and then, there are chairs to sink into with a good book or a sleepy head. I’m talking here about the latter—because chairs to sink into, armchairs—overstuffed, upholstered or slipcovered chairs, with arms, not occasional chairs or accent chairs or dining room chairs or heaven forbid, slipper chairs—are essential to the country house milieu, and to all houses with a soul. There must to be an armchair or two by the fireplace, or in the drawing room, in the corner of a bedroom, in the library, or in the garden room or sunroom.
Yet one would think that there is very little to say about armchairs, for they are a common, everyday piece of furniture. We know it when we see it. It draws us in. We must sit down. What else is there to say?
Well, I’ve had armchair woes and armchair triumphs. Though at the time, I didn’t know such things existed. I didn’t know that two things matter the most when it comes to armchairs: how they are made and where they are located.
They must, of course, have arms, closed arms, not open (this is the difference between the French bergere and the French fauteuil, which has open arms). They must be low to the ground. They must have soft coverings and cushions. They must be placed near the fireplace or in a cozy corner, or in a pair opposite a sofa. The idea is that when you come home from a long day or when you visit an unknown place for the first time, the armchair is there like a dear old friend.
The English country house icon, Nancy Lancaster, learned early on about the need for a comfortable armchairs in a house: “Mrs. Burden was the first person in America to use old Portuguese table covers—old flowered-cotton table cloths—as upholstery on furniture. They didn’t match, and they were old and faded.” Right about now, I would love to have a Robert Kime club chair, and Ben Pentreath knows the art of the armchair as well.
I can’t seem to get the armchairs right in my living room. When I finally replaced the winged-back chairs that my husband bought off a truck before I knew him, I had lovely navy linen chairs that were absurdly too big for my narrow room (scale and proportion escaped us). Now I have smart cane armchairs—low and wide with nice enough cushions on the seats, but not comfortable enough to sink into. Perhaps it’s a matter of time (how else are they to get worn?) and lots of pillows (like Nicky Haslam).
This armchair story, on the other hand, turned out better. For my daughter’s 22nd birthday I gave her an armchair (when I tell this story, people always look at me as if I should have given this for her 21st birthday, but I disagree). It was an old, small bedroom armchair that belonged to my Great-Aunt Margie (a woman with great style) that had been sitting in my basement for years. We covered it in a large scale ikat, added pretty piping (my sister-in-law, the seamstress, has this eye for detail), removed the skirt and painted the legs. It was already worn in the best kind of way, and whenever we go to our daughter’s apartment, we all fight over the best, worn, comfy spot in the room.
In our house, the most comfortable chair and most interesting spot to sit (you can see the television and all the views from the windows and out to the porch) is a worn, leather armchair that belongs to our Yorkie. I’m not entirely sure what this says about the soul of our house.