There are countless occasional chairs available today. But there’s little doubt that the most enduring design of all is the wingback chair, with its history dating back to the late 17th century.
How many other chairs can compete with its versatility and significance to interior design right up to the present day, never missing a beat for several hundred years? I can’t think of one with a comparable pedigree.
It was a design first conceived out of practicality in England and originally meant to be a kind of fireplace companion with its unique design. A high back and curved “wings” rose up from the arms and jutted out around eye level in order to shield the sitter from both cold drafts and the heat of a roaring fire in the hearth. It wasn’t until the 18th century that the wingback finally traveled from English castles and houses to American homes.
Other names that have been associated with this chair include easy chair, grandfather chair and fireside chair. Its side wings have sometimes been referred to (in England) as “saddle-cheeks” and even “ears.”
But these rather old-fashioned terms belie the image that this design only belongs in formal spaces or that its classic design or even the modern versions are to be associated with older people. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The wingback gained popularity in the mid-20th century and now appears more streamlined than earlier versions. Wings are often slimmed down and pulled back into the frame to allow the height, as opposed to the wings, to be more prominent.
Usually, the wing is paired with a streamlined, simple arm that may often descend to a modernized saber leg. In other words, contemporary designs now produce all sorts of shapes and sizes of the wing chair that can be used to great success in almost any type of room setting.
In fact, today’s wingback is rather chameleon-like and can appear more traditional or contemporary, depending on the fabric selection and the finish color of the wooden legs, as well. The legs now have the artistic license to be painted in some outrageous color, like maybe a mint green. Wingback chairs may sport a classic shape, but they can certainly be upholstered in the wildest of contemporary fabrics, which may be why a 400-year-old design remains as popular today as it ever was.
As I mentioned, the wingback was a design first conceived with practicality in mind, and yet it still managed to remain wonderfully stylish through the centuries in its many incarnations. Its design is incredibly flexible in its use and appearance, which allows for its successful application in almost every room of the house and in virtually every design style.
For example, it can be used:
n Next to the fireplace. A wingback chair can be angled in front of a working fireplace, where it will function as it was originally designed to do — to shield one from the direct heat of a fire.
n As dining chairs. Wingback chairs are often used at the head and foot of a dining table. But the dining chairs used for the additional seating should ideally have a lightness in their shape and shouldn’t have backs that are as tall or taller when compared with the more solid wingback chairs. With the leaner lines of a more traditional dining chair, the juxtaposition of the more solid wingbacks at either end of the table will serve to draw the eye outward, thus making a room appear wider.
Note: it’s important to make sure that, whether used as a dining or desk chair, the arms of the wingback chair clear the bottom of the table top. It can really make an eye-catching desk chair as the curves of the chair will play dramatically against a desk’s lines and angles.
n In the living room. They are best used in pairs, though it is not really necessary to do so because of their height and stately presence. Even a single chair can give purpose to a hard-to-define space. Still, when placed side by side, they make a terrific design statement.
It’s best to use a lower back version if placed in the middle of a room so as not to break up the floor plan. Or, if using a taller version of the chair, then placement should be near the room’s edges and corners. Wing chairs look so great in pairs because of their sinuous shape that’s so sculptural.
Very often wingback chairs are family heirlooms and are sometimes overlooked. They shouldn’t be, because they’re extremely versatile and can go far in adding a lot of personality and verve to a room, especially when upholstered in an updated fun fabric, maybe with contrasting welt, or even with two different fabrics for another great and exciting look.
It’s a chair that can be more fun to play with as it’s no longer such a serious piece. The modern wing chair can give you that “wow” factor while at the same time exhibiting a sculptural elegance.
Yes, modern versions may now appear a bit edgier, but they still retain the original design of the high back and wings while satisfying the demand for comfort. This chair is still loved worldwide and is, in fact, entering a new phase of design and application while retaining its status as one of the oldest and yet one of the most popular forms of furniture.
Bottom line: No matter your personal taste, there’s a wingback chair in a look and color that will complement any design style and that’ll do wonders for your space.
Stephen Leon is a licensed interior designer, certified professional in green residential design and president of Soleil Design (www.soleildezine.com). He is past president of the Central California/Nevada Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers. Questions can be sent to email@example.com.