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The History of the Chesterfield Sofa: A British Design Classic

The Chesterfield sofa is one of the most recognizable pieces of furniture in the world. You can travel to almost any location around the globe and there is a good chance that you will come across one at some point, whether it’s in a hotel lobby, an office, or an upmarket waiting room.

With its luxury leather, deep buttoning, low back, and high arms, this style classic has graduated from the gentlemen’s clubs and stately homes of the old British Empire to become a highly sought-after item of furniture for homeowners from every corner of the globe.

You might find yourself asking: how did one piece of furniture become so desirable across so many different cultures? Well, the answer to this question can be found by tracing the Chesterfield’s history over the hundreds of years from its inception. So, pour yourself a quintessentially British cup of tea and we’ll take a closer look at how this humble sofa has evolved to become one of the world’s favorite pieces of furniture.

Who invented the Chesterfield sofa?

The term ‘Chesterfield’ was first used to describe a piece of sofa-like furniture in the 1800s, but we have to look back a little further to discover the tale of its invention. There aren’t any official documents validating the story, but it is said that the style was originally commissioned by Lord Philip Stanhope, the fourth Earl of Chesterfield (1694–1773), a borough located in the East Midlands in England.

It’s said that the Earl wanted somewhere for a gentleman to sit without putting creases in his suit, so he employed a local craftsman to come up with a solution. The end result of this commission was the forerunner of the Chesterfield sofa. Should this story prove to be accurate, the Chesterfield’s upper-class origins would certainly be matched by a very fitting originator: Lord Philip Stanhope was an admired writer and politician, as well as one of Britain’s wealthy aristocratic class. He was also widely known as a trendsetter of his time — someone that many looked to for the latest fashions and styles.

When looking for a grain of evidence to verify the story, it’s important to note that Philip Stanhope was also a strong advocate of gentlemanly conduct — something that is evident in his collected letters to his illegitimate son titled Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman, published posthumously in 1774. In these letters, the Earl stresses the importance of being a respectable gentleman in all aspects of life, so it isn’t too difficult to imagine him being the type of man who would commission a sofa to help keep creases out of his suit. From a historical perspective, it seems fitting that such a man gave the world one of its most distinguished pieces of furniture.

Chesterfield House in 1760 — this illustration shows the home that Philip Stanhope built in 1752. He resided there until his death in 1773. This makes it the potential birthplace of the first Chesterfield. Sadly, it was demolished in 1937.

If you find yourself wondering how this first sofa made the leap to becoming a global favorite, it’s important to know a second story about the Earl that explains how the trend began. It’s said that, on his deathbed, Stanhope called in his butler and told him to “give Mr. Dayrolles a chair”. The butler interpreted this to mean that the proto-Chesterfield should be passed on to the Earl’s godson, Solomon Dayrolles, who had arrived to pay a final visit to his godfather. Solomon, a diplomat and admirer of the piece, had it transported to his home and displayed for his visitors. In its new residence, the sofa was much admired, to the point where many guests had their own versions made. This is how the Chesterfield found its way into the homes of the British upper class.

The Chesterfield in the Victorian era

Before the 19th century, the practical design of furniture had always been considered more important than the level of comfort it offered, but this changed during the new century. Sofas had been around in one form or another since the 1690s, but it wasn’t until the Victorians focused on how comfy their chairs should be that we began to see more modern features added. It’s probably safe to assume that the Earl’s Chesterfield sofa, or even the copies that followed it, weren’t fully representative of the contemporary look that we are familiar with today. However, it was during the Victorian era that more of the style’s luxurious features were added.

Early Chesterfields were filled with horsehair and used tufting to keep it in place. They did not have a suspension system either, so the seats would have been a lot more rigid and unforgiving to sit on. In addition, the buttoning on these early pieces was made of tougher leather and, when combined with the lack of springs, would have dug into the back and legs of anyone who sat on them for too long. One theory suggests that this hard-buttoned design was an invention of the Earl’s, who wished to have a sofa that discouraged unwanted visitors from sitting and waiting too long for an audience.

The deep-set buttoning, which has become a hallmark of contemporary tufted sofas, wasn’t added until the comfort-minded Victorian era. Likewise, the coiled springs used in sofa suspension didn’t receive a patent until 1828 — nine years before Queen Victoria ascended the throne. When these two features were introduced, the comfort of the sofa increased by a country mile, making a giant leap towards the cozy pieces we have grown used to in modern times. Early examples of what might be described as a contemporary Chesterfield didn’t appear until the mid-1800s at the earliest.

As it became more popular, the Chesterfield found its way into the homes of many wealthy families, where there was a widespread trend of having sofas upholstered in luxurious velvet or leather to match the grand décor that surrounded them. These two materials are still both popular to this day and have become associated as being part of the quintessential Chesterfield look.

Chesterfield chairs populate the bar area of the Savile Club, London.

The sofas also became a fixture of many gentleman’s clubs in London, such as White’s (est. 1693) and the Carlton Club (est. 1832), providing a comfortable setting for the city’s most influential men to sit and converse. These exclusive clubs played an important role in the daily lives of the rich and wealthy, offering a place where they could relax, dine, and socialize. Chesterfield sofas featured prominently throughout all of these venues, becoming the natural choice for interior designers. You can still visit some of the clubs that are going strong to this day and see their antique furniture. The presence of original Chesterfield pieces is a testimony to their enduring popularity and durability.

The psychoanalyst’s sofa

One of the most iconic uses of a Chesterfield sofa from the 1800s was in the office of Sigmund Freud, the grandfather of psychoanalysis. During this era, he pioneered his revolutionary therapy that would play a huge role in shaping the future of psychology as a field of study.

While developing his technique, he realized that the most effective way of extracting his patient’s innermost thoughts and feelings was to get his patients to speak freely, without any fear of reproach. Freud would sit nearby, beyond the eyeline of the patient, taking notes. The success of such therapy hinged on the patient being fully relaxed — something a comfortable sofa would play a key role in achieving. The fact he chose a Chesterfield for the task speaks volumes about the style’s comfort and luxurious feel.

Freud travelled the world demonstrating his unique psychoanalysis, and he always had a sofa on hand to help him practice. He is believed to have used several over the course of his career, though the only surviving model is a divan-style sofa that he used later in his life, which is displayed at a dedicated museum in London. However, the classic choice of a leather Chesterfield was the most memorable, and it was adopted by fellow Victorian therapists for their own practices. Thanks to Freud’s ground-breaking approach and work with many celebrities of the period, the leather Chesterfield has become synonymous with the practice of psychoanalysis. Even now, the style is a popular choice for therapists who are furnishing their own practices.

Even though Sigmund popularized the sofa style as part of his work, he was not the last Freud to use it in their career. His grandson, Lucien, was a famous artist who worked throughout the 20th century. Many of his works feature the leather Chesterfield as a dark backdrop for their subjects, perhaps most notably in the painting Bella and Esther (1988), which features his two daughters relaxing on a sofa. The use of a Chesterfield through his career helped to further solidify its association with the Freud family name.

The sofa of an empire

Between the late 16th and early 18th centuries, Britain began to claim more territories and colonies around the globe, forming what would be known as the British Empire. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Empire reached its peak, with almost a quarter of the world’s population under its rule. As frontiers were expanded, the British took their society and fashions with them as they exported their values to the rest of the world.

Wherever the British went, they brought along their favorite furniture, including the Chesterfield. Soon, it wasn’t uncommon to see these sofas in locations as widespread as Canada, India, and Australia, where it began to imbed itself as a global style icon. A good example of this is in Canada, where the style was so commonplace that the term ‘Chesterfield’ was used to describe a sofa of any style, even if it was completely different to a true Chesterfield.

© Donald Y Tong - licence

Chesterfield sofas in the lobby of the Melbourne Windsor Hotel, Australia.

The British Empire reached its peak in the 1920s, and the Chesterfield had firmly established itself across the far reaches of the territory. It had transcended its popularity in gentlemen’s clubs and upper-class homes to become a fixture in such places as hotels and banks. The ‘Roaring Twenties’, an age soundtracked by jazz music and soaked in alcohol, gave many people an excuse to host and attend parties in their own and others’ homes. During these years, no middle-class décor would be complete without a Chesterfield sofa or two to provide somewhere for revelers to sit comfortably and relax.

The British Empire fell into decline after the end of World War Two, with many colonies gaining independence in the years after. Even so, the Chesterfield was such a favorite that it continued to grow in popularity despite its originators relinquishing much of their control. The sofa became firmly associated with luxury and quality for designers the world over, and it continued to pop up in restaurants, bars, offices and many other locations where a touch of class was required.

The contemporary Chesterfield sofa

Once an item of furniture only the wealthy could enjoy, the Chesterfield now enjoys a status that has transcended class but retains the timeless style and distinguished air that its heritage has provided. As fashions have changed, the tufted sofa has been adapted through a whole variety of designs, but the classic look still remains versatile, and is able to work with almost any traditional or modern décor style. Simply put, it’s one of those rare pieces of furniture that will never go out of style.

For anyone shopping for a Chesterfield now, there are a lot of options that capture its classic look, but reimagine it to suit a modern home. There's a plethora of upholstery options to choose from, ranging from textured or antiqued leathers to neutral linens and cozy wools. You can also find a variety of designs to match your home’s requirements — for example, if you are working with a smaller area, there are corner sofas that fit snugly into your room, leaving more floor space. These are just some of the examples of how you can find a Chesterfield that’s right for you.

Here at Timeless Chesterfields, our team of expert craftspeople have been producing quality Chesterfield sofas, chairs, sofa beds, corner sofas, and footstools for more than 40 years. All of our pieces are built by hand in our English workshop, where we use the time-honored techniques that have been passed down through generations to create our furniture. The result is Chesterfields that are more than worthy of the grand heritage described here.

You can find out more about how we build our furniture in this guide to the anatomy of our Chesterfield sofas. Alternatively, you can get in touch if you have any questions and our helpful team will be more than happy to help you out.