I have to admit upfront, that I have owned a fair number of wingback chairs over the years. I have also paid compliments to friends, family members and neighbors who purchased such chairs for their own homes. I have settled into the wraparound comfort of a plush wingback chair in classically-decorated bank lobbies and attorney’s offices, and I have even found solace in the quiet comfort of a wingback settee in a cruise ship library.
Wingback chairs once were the epitome of “the right stuff” in classy homes and for the offices of respected business leaders. Along with the president’s rocking chair, wingback chairs featured prominently in the First Lady’s renovation of the Kennedy White House nearly 60 years ago.
Just What Is It that You Love?
Many a young married started out with castoff wingbacks from a father’s office or the family’s rarely-used front parlor. They were serviceable, reasonably comfortable, and always “in style.” Combining a wingback chair with a nondescript sofa and a flea market coffee table was a statement of eclecticism, embraced by necessity.
To be fair, I still have a wingback chair in my home, a grudging nod to my husband’s insistence that, no matter how worn and faded its upholstery, it is still his favorite spot for a quick nap on a Sunday afternoon. The chair’s salmon and blue woven flamestitch fabric is threadbare, and the stuffing in the seat cushion has flattened over time.
It is totally inappropriate in the sitting area of our stylishly neutral primary bedroom. But for the sake of my marriage, it remains in our household. I disguise its shabbiness somewhat with a plucky fringed throw, and a contrasting lumbar pillow. But at least the chair isn’t on public display, nor would a visitor to our home ever be invited to sit there.
My love affair with wingback chairs cooled several decades ago, even though I tried at one point to fan the flame of former passion by buying an oversize pair of heavy natural cowhide wingbacks. They were meant to be the focal points in a desert-southwest-style den. Large on impact value and notable for the comments they elicited from visitors, the incongruous chairs soon became too much of a “statement” even for me, and I replaced them with sleeker seating.
History, Form and Function
As most people know, wingback style originated in drafty castles and became extremely popular during the 17th Century, particularly in England. When a room’s only source of heat was a large fireplace, the practical high solid back and wings that surrounded a person’s head and shoulders became a practical alternative to donning capes and head covering while indoors. Early wingback seating was no doubt far from comfortable, most likely lacking even a seat cushion.
It was only later that cushions and fully upholstered chairs came into vogue. Over the centuries, many styles and forms of wingback seating have come and gone. While the wings once served a functional purpose, today they seem a little silly, like the oversize fins on a late 1950s-era Cadillac. They serve no purpose, and may actually block air circulation, not to mention conversation.
Today, however, the style seemingly will not die. Modified wingbacks grace dining rooms, and some chairs even are stretched to settee length as well as the wingback style applied to chaise lounges.
New wingback chairs are available from Ikea, and buyers can snag vintage models in all price ranges on ebay. Go figure! There are even lightweight versions of the classic wingback form meant for outdoor use, fashioned of wire mesh, natural rattan, metal or plastic cane. The wings are purely decorative, of course, and sometimes are more comical than stylish. Casually modern seating, even highback Parsons-style chairs, sometimes sport slim wings, and ultramodern seating might feature a pseudo-wingback, with pointed extensions that can resemble ears more than wings. Such designs may be sleek and trendy; to me they seem unnecessary and overly “cute.”
Evolution of the Wingback Chair
It is only natural that the wingback chair became known as a fireside chair, and American homeowners have traditionally used them in pairs, often in front of modern fireplaces. Arranged to balance a conversation grouping, either opposite a sofa or on either end of a sofa or loveseat, they fill out a room. Styles over the centuries moved from large and imposing, such as a Chesterfield design, to the more fluid and refined Queen Anne style. Some wingback chairs boast slender, curving legs, while others have a decidedly masculine vibe.
Wood details of traditional wingback chairs, including the legs, were originally simply crafted. More ornate details followed — carved, fluted or flared legs, and full wooden borders to emphasize the lines, hefty legs and stretchers, widespread wings and thick rolled arms.
Upholstery, too, although frequently of needlepoint, crewelwork or expensive brocade, was often far simpler, of cotton, classic homespun, wool tweed or plaid, linen, corduroy, leather and suede, or colorful chintz. Handy homemakers have covered aging wingback chairs with colorful blankets or heirloom quilts.
A curvy feminine wingback chair has little in common, stylistically, with the smooth leather wingback club chair of traditional gentlemen’s clubs. While the style was once synonymous with prestige, generations of homeowners embraced the wraparound style, and a wingback recliner at one time represented the apex of TV-watching comfort in the dens of middle America. More contemporary wingbacks often have lower backs, plumper cushions, and matching overstuffed ottomans. I cannot help but think of the Pillsbury doughboy, or the StayPuft Marshmallow Man.
What is unique about wingback style is its infinitely adaptable nature. The design details might be austere or ornate, but the style moved easily from 17th-Century England to 18th-Century France, throughout Europe, its colonies, and the Americas. It was popular in 19th century New England, in the deep South and the far West. Then wingback chairs moved easily into 20th-Century ranches and urban townhomes, where they still mix, sometimes uncomfortably, with newer furniture.
Wingback chairs even influenced the Scandinavian design aesthetic, and the case can be made that Arne Jacobsen took inspiration for his iconic egg chair from the style.
Twentieth-century Bauhaus designers rejected the past, once and for all, and introduced a new paradigm for furniture design. But, oddly enough, the wingback chair refuses to go quietly into the night, even though lifestyle patterns have changed dramatically. Today’s focus is on more personalized design, and more casual living. But wingback chairs continue to be introduced in altered form in new furniture collections. In fact, they are enjoying a resurgence of popularity in some circles, although most of the wings are more subtle, scaled down to blend better with contemporary, clean-lined interiors.
Perhaps the time is past due to move on.
Larger wingback chairs do not easily fit the parameters of casual living. They are too large, too formal and too impractical for the smaller rooms of modern homes, and too rooted in tradition. They somehow seem like unwelcome guests in the open-plan interiors of modern homes.
Situated in front of a fireplace or near a window, they can detract from a pleasant view. Placed against a wall, they have all the appeal of a doctor’s waiting room! Wingback chairs are not easily moved to accommodate a crowd. While they can be comfortable, and modern versions are typically well-padded, they also, more often than not, encourage sitting up straight rather than feet-up lounging.
Is There a Future for Wingback Chairs?
As timeless as the style has been for generations, I think it’s time to banish the style from contemporary home interiors. As adaptable as the style once was, wingback chairs no longer are a classic choice for upscale interiors; rather they often appear dated and dowdy. Why not go for a more playful, personal and comfortable vibe in home decor?
Just as residential architecture has changed dramatically in recent decades, this may be the time to allow some classic styles to be relegated to museums. When wingback chairs became a staple in country clubs and upper class living rooms, they were equated with success, money and prestige. Today, not so much!
As I mentioned, I have lived with, and loved, my share of wingback chairs, and if I ever convince my husband to part with his chair, I will feel no guilt. Is that too harsh a judgment? I suspect that there are plenty of others who are ready to embrace a new crop of wingback chairs, for reasons that I cannot fathom.
I will do my best to offer a polite comment on what is, after all, a personal choice. But forgive me if I opt, instead, for a timeless Barcelona chair!
By Adrienne Cohen
The author honed her quirky style sense during a 15-year stint as design-builder of custom homes in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and later as a home stager in Dallas, Texas. She jokes that she replaces and rearranges the furniture in her own home almost as regularly as she changes hairstyles! Today, she is a full-time freelance writer, specializing in telling stories about travel, good food, interesting people and unique lifestyles, which she considers the prime components of life well lived.