An appreciation of the humble armchair, the most versatile piece of living room furniture.
Tub, club, wing, bergère, beanbag, fauteuil, lounge: Few genres of furniture have bent themselves so willingly to the designer's hand as the armchair. The profusion of armchair categories is proof positive that necessity—the need for a place to plop down—is the mother of stylish invention. "In the fifties people used to entertain a lot in formal rooms, like the living room, and the armchair was something you mainly showed off to your friends," says Mark Goetz, a furniture designer and assistant professor of design at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. "In the nineties comfort is the major issue. Today, you just want to jump in an armchair and have it envelop you."
That's not to say that "comfort" and "casual" mean the same thing. Goetz and San Francisco—based designer Orlando Diaz-Azcuy agree that "incredibly casual" armchairs are popular. Goetz also adds that "this is an eclectic period of armchair design. Everything goes. Mission, Deco, modernist, fifties revival—they're all out there." However, Diaz-Azcuy qualifies that "even though many armchairs today have very casual shapes, the upholstery isn't casual at all." Mainly, they agree, the American interpretation of the European tailored look reigns.
"You see a lot of very tailored pieces, with beautifully stitched fabric and no extraneous wrinkles or pleats," says Goetz, "especially in sophisticated urban settings. There's a big influence from international design firms such as B&B Italia and Ligne Roset, and that's rendering American design more sophisticated. In fact, I think that there hasn't been this much foreign influence since the fifties. Of course, you see enormous American influence in Europe as well now, especially in the classic designs of Knoll, Eames, and Nelson."
"The very tailored look was used a lot in the fifties," says Diaz-Azcuy. "Then the look became soft, then overstuffed, then shabby. Now the very tailored look is back." As for European design, Diaz-Azcuy is blunt. "The United States has always looked to France and England, in particular, for design. But in the last ten years both countries have started looking to us. We're doing the trendsetting now in contemporary design. Yes, Europe is much more avant-garde, they're breaking the molds. But if you're looking for armchairs that are comfortable, will last, and look good, America is where you find them." As Goetz puts it, "I have a lot of respect for the impeccable quality and craftsmanship of some European armchair designs, but I wouldn't own them."
One thing that hasn't changed is the armchair's role in the living room. While sofas are inherently social, the armchair allows us to be apart in a group or to be by ourselves. "A sofa is a public space you usually share with other people," says Dennis Miller, owner of the New York showroom Dennis Miller Associates. "It's more formal. An armchair is intimate, solitary. It wants to be your home, and yours alone; you don't have to share it with anyone. Yet the armchair can also include you as part of a conversation group. It's got to perform that dual purpose."
"You can make a sofa a mile long and it still won't really fit eight people because they'll seat themselves as far apart as possible," says Geoffrey De Sousa, design director at San Francisco—based Agnes Bourne Inc. "People want to have their own, intimate space. The armchair lets you be by yourself around others." And while the sofa usually takes pride of place in the geography of the living room ("Sofas were created to give scale to a room," says Diaz-Azcuy), it's the armchair that gives it life. Even the vocabulary designers use in speaking about armchairs reflects that. "They need to be inviting, to make you feel that the chair is hugging you," says De Sousa. "The armchair you buy should look like it belongs to you even before you own it," says David Law, senior vice president and partner of Vignelli Associates and design director for Vignelli Designs. "It should make your heart sing."
Well, perhaps. But while your heart is singing your head should be thinking about eight-way, hand-tied springs, double-doweling, and pitch. Even one of the most respected designers in the field, John Hutton of John Hutton Furnishings (based in Holland) and former design director of Donghia Furniture/Textiles Ltd. (he was with the company for more than 20 years), says armchair style is just the topping. "It's not hard for a designer to make an armchair look pretty," he tells me. "We have ideas for beautiful chairs all the time. But I think that art is art, and furniture is furniture.
"The question with any armchair is whether it's comfortable—and whether it will last," he says, gesturing to me to sit in Donghia's Villa Club Chair, which he designed. It's upholstered in a chestnut-maroon linen/velvet, the legs finished in black-cherry stain. I find I'm instantly buoyed up by the oversize, plump silk pillow, stuffed with feathers and down. The seat-to-back angle is such that my head leans back naturally, and the armrests, which are longer than usual, give me the pleasant sense of being in my own space, protected.
"When I was just married and living in California I had a little MG and loved the way the headlights jutted out," states the 51-year-old Hutton. "I think armrests that extend to the very end of the chair like that suggest movement. I like to feel as if I'm traveling when I sit."
So the Villa Club passed the love-at-first-sit test. ("As soon as you settle into a chair you can tell whether it's right for you; comfort is instant," Hutton says.) But how do I know that the Villa Club has the makings of a long-term relationship? The answer is, I don't—unless I ask—because those elements are largely invisible. "We often remind our customers that our best work gets covered up," explains Bob Kroll, owner of San Francisco—based Kroll Furniture. Here's a guide—based on conversations with designers, showroom owners, and upholsterers—to the inner workings of this indispensable piece of furniture.
The replication of armchair designs at various price points tends to make people shop price, a huge mistake in this field. "People often see a high-end armchair and think, 'I just saw one that looks exactly the same at one-third the price,' " says Law. "But they are not the same at all. Knockoffs might look in vogue, but usually won't hold up over time." Moreover, the hallmarks of quality construction (eight-way, hand-tied springs, for instance) sometimes exist in cheaper armchairs. "Yes, an armchair may have eight-way, hand-tied springs," continues Law, "but what does it matter if it's made badly? If it sags after a year, it will never be an heirloom."
Take a seat
Sounds obvious, but "it's amazing the number of people who don't sit in armchairs in showrooms," notes Miller. "Sometimes we actually have to insist that they do."
Look at the back
"Sofas are often against the wall or a table, so you don't see their back," Miller points out. "But armchairs are often in the middle of the room, which means the back is seen. That's why it's essential you study armchairs from all sides in the showroom."
As always, it's the ultimate way to get an item that fits you. "With custom chairs, we can manipulate seat depth and make the frame longer or shorter," says Hutton.
The Anatomy of Comfort
Rules of ergonomics are followed precisely when designing office chairs, but not armchairs. "There really are no absolutes when it comes to armchairs—each one is looked at individually," says Goetz. "Yes, the majority of your weight does rest on the seat, which is why the seat cushion should be denser than the back cushion. If you have a bad back a very soft cushion, under you or behind you, can be painful. It may not be good for you to sit in a lounge chair for more than an hour or two at a time. But after nine hours seated in ergonomically correct office chairs we're looking to get out of such a rigid position at home."
There are, however, a few rules almost universally followed. Most armchairs sit 16 to 19 inches high—20 inches if the cushion is made of down—because that's the length of most people's lower legs. "When lounge chairs are lower to the ground, they're difficult to get out of," says Goetz, "but that doesn't necessarily mean they're less comfortable to sit in. The key is the chair's pitch."
He's right. If the armchair's pitch—or its degree of inclination—is too sharp, it may cut off blood circulation in the back of the legs. If the backrest tilts too far back, it may force your head forward, stressing the cervical spine. Gender also plays a role. The industry standard for the seat-to-back angle for adult females is about 105 degrees; for men, who tend to prefer more reclined chairs, it's 113 degrees—the equivalent of a car seat opened up a few notches. Carl D'Aquino, a New York interior and furniture designer, says that the difference is largely attributable to the different positioning of women's and men's hips and pelvises. But, he adds, it may also be sociological. "Women are taught to be ladylike and to sit up straight, men to slip back and put their feet up."
According to Diaz-Azcuy, armrests are critical because they carry about half the weight of your arms (your shoulders sustain the rest). "Some years ago I designed a lounge chair for a bedroom," he states. "When the client put his arms on the rests they were too far apart for him to read the paper comfortably. That's how I learned. Test the armrests. Check if you can put both arms on the rests and feel comfortable. If your arms are too high, your elbows will move up too much and you'll get tired. If they're too low, your elbows won't rest on the chair, your hands will." According to Goetz, armrests should be nearly parallel to the seat, and anywhere from seven to 10 inches above the crest of the cushion when compressed. "You don't want your arms to feel too low or too high, and your wrist should fall over the edge of the armrest," says De Sousa.
The height of the chair's back varies according to style. "For lounging and reading you need to look at back height," says De Sousa, "because you'll want to lean your head back. That's one reason wing chairs are so popular—their back is so tall."
Lumbar support—the area that supports the concave portion of the lower back—is essential in office chairs but less critical in armchairs, unless you have a back problem or the armchair is exceptionally deep (19 to 22 inches is average). Beware of too much lumbar support—that can exaggerate the curve of your back instead of supporting it. To get the support just right some custom armchair manufacturers do what Kroll does: "Upholster the chair in muslin, then have the client come in to sit-test it. Then we adjust the lumbar support to fit his own back."
As for seat width, armchairs are generally at least 19 inches wide. "But you don't have to worry about an armchair being too wide," Goetz says. "The important thing is that you have enough room to reposition yourself in it. The thing I worry about as far as width is how much space in the room the chair will take up."
One sure-fire way to test the comfort level of an armchair is to sit in it for 20 minutes and calculate how frequently you change position. If you change once every 10 minutes or so, which is average to relieve the pressure of the hip bones against the flesh, you fit the chair. More often than that and you're fidgeting, a clear indication of discomfort. But you have to sit correctly: with your bottom scooted all the way to the back of the seat, arms resting on the armrests and back leaning fully against the back of the chair. "All that carefully thought-out design doesn't do any good if you don't use it," says New York chiropractor George Fieberg. It also won't do you any good if you abuse it. "If you want to keep the chair for generations, don't make a habit of sitting on the arm," Law advises. "This can loosen the dowels and cause it to sag."
Hardware:The Frame "Fabric can attract you and dictate what armchair you choose," says Goetz, "but what you are buying is the construction of the armchair. You can always have it reupholstered, but you only get one shot at the frame."
Frames are commonly made of wood or metal, and sometimes fiberglass, plastic, or plywood. Wood is most common among upholstered pieces. Law, whose firm Vignelli Associates has designed armchairs for Poltrona Frau for more than 15 years, says a wooden frame is "time-honored, traditional construction. It's also the least tooling-intensive. It's easy to cut wood to any shape, size, or dimension. There are lots of nailing surfaces to attach upholstery to. Wood also offers the greatest flexibility for making custom pieces. If a client requires slightly different dimensions than the standard ones, it's easy to do with wood."
The best frames are made of hardwood. According to Kroll, alder, poplar, and cherry are often used on the West Coast (Appalachian oak, he points out, is too hard). De Sousa says he's used both maple and ash wood in the past, but opted for alder for the club chair and sofa in his most recent collection. "It's very hard, strong, and readily available—and it was at the right price point." Diaz-Azcuy, who designs for McGuire Furniture Co. and Hickory Business Furniture (HBF), among other firms, says he used cherry in the past but switched to maple because of the price. On the East Coast maple, beech, birch, and hickory are often adopted. Hutton uses only maple in the United States because "it's the strongest." (In Europe, he opts for beech.)
Almost every designer I spoke to advised against pine—a hallmark of cheaper armchairs. "With pine, joints and staples tend to work loose more easily," says Law.
What's surprising is that the upholsterer—not the designer—chooses the wood for the frame, unless the chair is being done by a big name. "We worked with Frank Gehry modifying Poltrona Frau's Pitagora chairs for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao theater," says Law. "He wanted chairs with leather seats and wood backing to match the walls. He needed three different dimensions to match the curved and staggered plan. So we customized them and Poltrona Frau produced them. Normally, as the designer, I specify the wood only when it's essential to the appearance of the chair. Otherwise, the Poltrona Frau engineers decide what the frame should be made of." (For the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao's theater seats, seasoned birchwood was used.)
The standard thickness of wood used for frames is usually 1.25 inches, or 5/4 inches in armchair design parlance. Anything narrower is likely to warp and twist. Thicker pieces are sometimes used for attaching webbing or springs, to create curves or corner details, or to join a number of pieces at one spot. But as Hutton points out, "thicker doesn't necessarily mean better. If the armchair becomes too heavy, it is not really furniture anymore. Furniture needs to be mobile." De Sousa concurs: "Weight depends on the design of the chair and has nothing to do with quality."
The most important consideration is that the wood is kiln-dried; this keeps it from warping or distressing over time. "Kiln-dried is standard for the industry," says Kroll. "That means it's been dried to twelve to fifteen percent moisture content."
Next is the construction. "Better-quality furniture is always doweled and glued," notes Law, whereas inexpensive furniture is sometimes stapled together. ("Stapling guarantees a frame will loosen within a few years," Kroll explains.) Dowels—short, slender wooden rods that are plugged into holes in both sides of a joint—expand and contract with the frame as temperature and humidity change. When the frame expands or contracts in a chair joined with screws the wood around the screws is crushed and the joint loosens. The best wooden frames are double-doweled. "Double-doweling is twice as strong and prevents twisting," says Law. "If you use a square peg in a square hole, it cannot twist easily. But a dowel, which is a round peg in a round hole, can. By using two dowels, there is less chance that they'll rotate."
Metal armchair frames are usually made of painted steel, stainless-steel tubing, or die-cast aluminum. The latter has the same tensile strength as steel but it weighs two-thirds less. "The beauty of a steel or aluminum frame is that you can achieve an elegance that's not possible with wood," says Goetz. "You can make a sturdy metal chair using very slender lengths. By curving or casting the metal, the design becomes organic." Law uses a metal frame when he wants a "thin" look. "Steel is best for durability. It's easily fabricated and can be welded without a lot of specialized equipment. That means it's hard for the manufacturer to go wrong. Nonferrous metals, such as stainless steel, titanium, and aluminum, require more specialized equipment."
One hallmark of a well-made armchair is the use of eight-way, hand-tied springs in the seat—a support system in which each steel spring is tied with knotted twine to its neighbors in eight directions. Considered the best type of internal support, eight-way, hand-tied springs are in effect an independent suspension system cradling the body. "Eight-way, hand-tied springs seem to be the most lasting," says De Sousa, "and they have a lot of give." Kroll is even more emphatic: "In upholstered living room furniture the eight-way, hand-tied coil springs system ranks number one without any competition. If it is properly constructed, it is as good as it gets because it allows the flex needed for uniform support."
But eight-way hand-tying is labor intensive, and thus expensive, which is why a lot of mass producers have gotten away from it. They often use "drop-in units"—pre-manufactured structures made of springs that are wired together instead of tied. According to Kroll, the problem with such a system is that the springs rub together more, which leads to a loosening of the suspension. (Beware the alternative "zigzag" springs, also known as "no-sag springs"—a technique derived from automobile seating and the least effective support for an armchair.)
Eight-way hand-tying is becoming a bit of a lost art. But its presence alone doesn't guarantee the quality of the chair: The tying has to be done well. For instance, if the springs aren't spaced properly, the support may be uneven. "This could cause a chair to sit well in the store and last a few years at home, but eventually the support will decay," warns John Black, vice president of design for Baker Furniture. "Proper eight-way, hand-tied construction will last indefinitely—as long as you have a solid foundation for it." Unfortunately, there is no way to ascertain how good the hand-tied springs are except to rely on the reputation of the manufacturer.
Some upholsterers prefer elastic or rubber webbing, a more expensive material resembling extra-wide underwear waistbands, as an alternative to springs. Ken Flam, a Bronx-based upholsterer with clients from all over the country, says webbing is more versatile; it can be stretched to make it firmer or softer. "But it has to be tightly woven and requires a forgiving cushion."
"We used eight-way, hand-tied springs in the Pitagora armchair," says Law, "but elastic webbing in the Pitagora theater chair. Webbing takes up less room and allows for a more slender profile. We also needed a theater chair that was comfortable but not so comfortable that you'd fall asleep during a performance. The elastic webbing gave a stiffer seat."
Kroll, on the other hand, says webbing is acceptable only in some office furniture, specifically chairs with a seat too thin to take springs. For fully upholstered quality pieces it's not an option. De Sousa agrees. "Webbing and no-sag construction don't have the longevity of eight-way, hand-tied springs. After a while, they give."
Cushions and Fill
In the past, springs were placed not only in armchair seats but in cushions, which is why older armchairs are often so rigid. Today some upholsterers still use inner-seat springs—smaller springs encased in muslin and inserted into the cushion—but most employ a combination of down, feather, and foam.
High-quality down is the most expensive filling but also creates the plumpest, softest cushions. "Down has all the pluses," says Kroll. "The only really negative thing about it is the cost."
Down is often mixed with feathers, and the trick is getting the combination right. Quality mixes contain a minimum of 10 percent down. "But it's very heavy, much firmer, has little fluff, and tends to set," says Kroll about the 10-90 mix. That's why designers advise a mix of 25 percent down and 75 percent feather. It allows you to sink, then supports you—and it's more easily fluffed. "It's long-lasting, less expensive, and has the feeling of down without the hassle," says Miller.
"Premium fill down"—or 50 percent down and 50 percent feather—"has a bit higher loft," states Kroll. "It's softer and more luxurious. It gives you a better ride and conceals unevenness." Kroll recommends premium fill in armchairs covered in silk; if the fill is more than half feather, he says, the quills start coming through the material.
And then there is the "ultra-high-end blend"—80 percent down and 20 percent feather. "But this is used only in toss pillows and certain back cushions," Kroll explains. "It's incredibly expensive." There are purists however, like Diaz-Azcuy, who use 100 percent down in seat cushions. "It's very soft, and I enjoy fluffing it so much that I prohibit my housekeeper from doing it. I think the twenty-five to seventy-five percent blend looks almost commercial, and it causes sharp, hard edges."
Down's strength—its fluff—is also its weakness: It conforms to and holds whatever shape presses down on it. That means you have to fluff the cushions each time the chair is used (by removing them from the chair and shaking or by pounding them with your fists). With average use, down has been known to last for more than 100 years. However, the down and the cover, or "tick," should be sterilized, and more down should be added every five to 10 years; the down should be replaced every 20 to 30 years, as should feathers, which become brittle over time and break.
The only other problem with down is its odor. Kroll only uses down from Poland, Germany, and China, which he says is superior to down from North America. "It's the difference between free-range and foster-farm chickens. Most domestic down comes from ducks that have been force-fed fish emulsion. Premium down is washed three or more times; inferior down may not be, leaving a lingering odor. This may not be detectable from the ten or twelve ounces of down it takes to fill a toss pillow, but would become apparent from the twenty-five pounds required for an armchair."
People who are allergic to down probably won't be affected by an armchair cushion filled with the material. "The down is encased in muslin and then in fabric," says Miller. "So unless your head's resting right against it for a long time, it shouldn't be a problem. I've never had any complaints."
For seat cushions, which get more wear than back cushions, designers recommend a combination of down wrapped around a polyurethane foam core. The core promotes shape retention, while the down adds softness. "You have the initial comfort of down," says Law, "and then the support as you sink down." It's also less expensive. "I love using foam core, down-wrapped cushions," says De Sousa. "You have the wonderful feeling of down and the resiliency of foam. You are not constantly fluffing cushions, because the core makes it stay more tailored."
Even with foam, quality varies. Kroll says that "making foam is like making bread: the more dough, the heavier it is." He uses "virgin foam," or foam that isn't supplemented with clay or sand. "With lesser foam, a few years after you buy the chair you can lift up the cushion and find a powder on the platform from the breakdown of the foam core," he warns.
The premier virgin foam is "high resilience," or "HR," foam. An acceptable alternative is "sandwich urethane foam"; this uses alternating layers of foam in differing degrees of hardness and softness. It's worth investing in high-quality foam because inferior versions settle quickly, which means that after as little as a year of use cushions will begin to sag and look aged. Then you will spend $60 to $75 per cushion refurbishing them, whereas cushions filled with top-quality foam will last 10 years.
Kroll says that the best way to see if the foam is good is "the tush test." "If you feel like you're sitting on air, chances are it's not the best cushion," he says. "If it receives and supports your frame, the foam is good. But you have to sit in each chair for a few minutes."
In the past, cattle-, hog-, and horsehair were commonly used as filling. Now these materials are used mostly in Europe—particularly horsehair, which is frequently touted for its durability. But according to Black, even modern horsehair can be uncomfortable if it is not properly supported. "Other components today are much, much better," says Kroll.
"The problem with fabric is that you have to reupholster it every four to seven years," says Meryl Siegman, co-owner and vice president of Cortina Leathers, which—along with Edelman Leather and Spinneybeck, owned by Knoll Inc.—is one of the top leather import companies in the United States. "Leather lasts four to five times longer and becomes more valuable as it ages. If the leather is good, and the coloration is good, it can last fifty to sixty years."
Leather is Goetz's first choice for most of his designs. "It wears well, it's crisp, it captures the lines of the furniture well, and it won't compete with the design." According to De Sousa, "Leather is very durable and can have a soft hand. I usually use naked cowhide. It has a wonderful, soft feel that becomes more lush with use—though that's also true of mohair, velvet, and chenille." Says Law: "Leather costs more up front, but it lasts and lasts and lasts. It's also easier to clean and, unlike fabric, looks better as the chair gets older."
Buy only full-grain leather, the natural, untouched skin surface, which is also the most expensive. "Grain means skin surface, and full-grain is the top layer of the hide," explains Law. "It's the only one with any texture. When other layers are used, texture is added through calendering, which is like embossing." And don't think that top grain means what it says. It is actually full-grain leather whose natural defects, such as scars, have been "corrected" in the tanning process.
The best full-grain leather comes from France, Germany, and Scandinavia, where there isn't a lot of rangeland. That means cows are kept in smaller range lots and thus grow larger. It also means that they are not branded or exposed to barbed wire—in other words, there is less risk that they will damage their hides. In fact, "Italian leather," which is considered the best, is usually from one of these countries, but has been tanned and dyed in Italy. (American tanned leather, notes Siegman, "isn't much to brag about.")
Unless you're an expert, it's hard to distinguish full grain from lesser grades, but here are some ways to season your eye.
• Look at the leather under a magnifying glass. Full-grain leather has peaks and valleys ("something like a lunar surface," says Siegman), as well as hair sacs—holes where the follicle used to be. Inferior grades have a smooth surface because the leather has been sanded to remove imperfections.
• If the leather has a pattern, examine it closely. If it's too regular, chances are that it's been embossed, a process experts look down on. Embossing involves putting the leather under a machine resembling a giant waffle iron and applying heat and pressure. It's used to lend inferior leather an exotic look, like alligator or ostrich, or to replace the natural pattern after the hide has been corrected. While embossing creates a uniform pattern, it also stiffens the hide. "Good leathers should never be embossed," Siegman states flatly.
• Check the dye. The best leather upholstery is aniline-dyed, the only process that permeates the leather, thus making scratches and nicks harder to see. Because the aniline dye is transparent, it does not hide natural defects. It also reflects light from inside the hide, which, according to Siegman, gives it "great depth and beauty."
But pure aniline dye also isn't resistant to fading and staining. Thus most high-end manufacturers add a protective agent to the dye, or spray on a protective top coat, and add a bit of pigment. Also, check that the color on the front and the back of the leather match. If there is a big discrepancy, the color on the back may have been sprayed on—a shortcut.
• Ask for a "cutting," or a sample of the leather that will actually be used on the chair. (The showroom samples aren't necessarily the leather that will go on your chair.) To be certain the sample has been aniline-dyed, cut it with scissors and see if the color goes all the way through.
Most armchairs are covered with cow leather, which costs eight or nine dollars per square foot on average. Occasionally, calf is used, which starts at $10 a square foot. "The difference is instantly obvious," says Siegman. "Calf is soft, supple, beautiful, and has little texture. It's also incredibly durable, and there's usually little to correct. The hides are small, yet large enough for an armchair. But we really use it only in corporate jets. I mean, if you're spending that much money on a plane, you may as well get the best seats possible."
More exotic leathers, such as ostrich, are even more expensive. (Ostrich goes for approximately $300 per hide, or 10 square feet.) One leather Siegman warns against is lambskin. "Sure, it's incredibly soft," she says, "but the hides are only eight square feet, which means a lot of seams on a chair. It's also not treated and could leave stains on your clothing. We'd never recommend it." Snake and crocodile can't be used either because the skin is not large enough.
Upholstery leather undergoes two main processes: tanning, which preserves it, and finishing, which includes aniline-dyeing and adds color and texture. In the past, upholstery leather was tanned with vegetable tannins, which increase its weight, density, and stiffness. "It has a great, old-world smell, like when you walk into a Coach store," says Siegman, but it isn't well suited for welting or buttons, and it doesn't take bright colors well. "Those club chairs you see from the early 1900s usually have genuine vegetable-tanned leather," says Siegman. "When they crack, you can see the raw material underneath, which is normally brown-colored cowhide, because in the past only the top was tanned."
Today upholstery leather is usually chromium-tanned, a synthetic alternative that yields a hide with no smell that is thinner and softer and can be dyed in just about any color. "But there's really no difference in quality," Siegman explains. "It's mainly a matter of aesthetics." If you want that antique look, Siegman recommends going with a chromium tan that's been designed to look old, such as her company's Rodeo and Giulia.
The key with leather is first to select quality, then color. Many opt for "customer's own leather" (COL), which means that the designer specifies the leather and the manufacturer sends a sample cutting before the chair is made. "This costs more," says Siegman, "but the customer gets exactly what he or she wants."
"If an armchair is perfectly tailored," says Hutton, "it's a sign someone has cared about it." Designers and manufacturers agree that the choice of armchair fabric depends mainly on the look of the room in which the chair will be placed (formal or casual), and the amount and type of use the chair will receive (silk is too delicate for young children and pets). As for what's in style these days: "Plain fabrics are in. People don't want large patterns on armchairs anymore," says Scott Kravet, vice president of Kravet Fabrics, one of the largest American to-the-trade textile manufacturers. Diaz-Azcuy agrees. "Solid colors and very small patterns are in vogue now."
The quality of fabrics, Kravet continues, "really varies from mill to mill." If you are doing your shopping at one of the high-end textile manufacturers—such as Scalamandré, Clarence House, Fortuny, Brunschwig & Fils—you can't go wrong. "But there's no hard and fast rule in terms of individual fabric durability," states Scott's brother, Cary, president of Kravet Fabrics and president of the Decorative Fabrics Association, which includes most of the top fabric companies in the United States. "It really depends upon yarn content, yarn twist, and weaving construction."
In general, mohair and wool are the strongest materials. Mohair comes in two types: V-weave, which is "not as good," according to Scott Kravet, and W-weave, which was once used in motor coaches, auditorium seating, and automobiles, and has made a comeback in recent years. "It's hot, hot, hot," he says, "but only a few mills in Europe are producing it; domestic mills are still experimenting with it."
Flam prefers mohair ($90 to $170) because it's soft, comfortable, and long-lasting. "Mohair is an excellent fiber," agrees Kroll. "It's been used during this whole century. It is easily cleaned, wears well, and feels luxurious. Frequently when people say they want something plush they mean mohair. It's used a lot in stage theater seats that have a lot of heavy traffic." De Sousa particularly likes the mohair from Home Couture, a company based in Los Angeles. "I use it a lot," he says. "It's much longer than most mohair, and it has a soft feel that isn't bristly. All the hair is dyed except the tips, which makes it look iridescent. It's like sitting in a big teddy bear."
For the most casual look, designers often turn to chenille, which costs $29 to $100 per yard. "Chenille is everywhere," says Scott Kravet. "It's soft, with a great touch. People like it. And even though it's expensive, it's worth it." According to Diaz-Azcuy, chenille is great because it can be dyed in rich colors and when woven tightly is mistaken for velvet. It also lasts forever. "It is so popular it's sickening," he says. "People often judge fabrics as if they're going to sit on them naked, and they love chenille because it's so sensuous. But sometimes I wish clients were more open to other possibilities." To see if chenille is high-quality, rub it with your finger—the yarn shouldn't move.
Silks ($30 to $250 per yard) and linens ($30 to $100 per yard), which Hutton and Diaz-Azcuy prefer above all else, create the most formal look and, says Scott Kravet, "will last great if woven tightly." "Linen gives an informal look to a sophisticated, elegant room," says Diaz-Azcuy. "That's why printed linens are often used in loggias and garden rooms." With silk you have to be careful not to place it in direct sunlight or it will deteriorate over time. When silk cushions are stuffed with feathers, the quills may show through the cloth, creating a dimpled texture, or even puncture it. "You have to get barrier muslin placed on the cushions underneath the silk," says Scott Kravet. "That way the feathers won't be a problem."
Velvet, a cut-pile cousin to mohair, is also popular, costs from $40 to $80 per yard, and lasts. "But it'll mark," says Scott Kravet. "If you run your nail over it, you will see the line. Sometimes the mark can remain permanently." A source at Clarence House, who asked to remain anonymous, thinks marking is a highlight. "Marking gives character to velvet. I think it's lovely. Velvet looks much better with age."
Sometimes even horsehair is woven into fabric. "Horsehair is great," states Scott Kravet, "but it's stiff." The Clarence House source agrees. "Horsehair is popular because of the way it looks and its wearability. But it's stiff and narrow, since it's woven from horse tails that are rarely longer than twenty-six inches. The horsehair fabric we sell goes for $450 to $600 per yard."
Designer Michael Vanderbyl's favorite is white cotton duck ($18 to $40 per yard), the fabric that most manufacturers use for creating chair prototypes. "It's tough, simple, and very inexpensive," he says. "It's the Gen-X industry standard," says Kroll, "like the Gap is for clothes. You often see white cotton duck in showrooms; it's usually the material under slipcovers." To see if it is high-quality, Scott Kravet explains, hold it up to the light. "If you can see through it, it's no good."
Finally, there are satins and brocades. "Satin is fine for an armchair," says Scott Kravet, "but it's delicate. And I wouldn't use brocade because it's too delicate." The Clarence House source agrees. "We offer more than twenty thousand materials, but only a couple dozen are silk brocades. We have some that are twenty-one inches wide and woven by hand in Lyon. They are wonderful fabrics for armchairs—if you own museum-quality furniture."
Let's split hairs for a moment. A lounge chair sits 16 to 19 inches off the floor, which is the same as a club chair and almost level with a dining chair (17 to 19 inches). It also has a fairly wide seat and a pitched back, although not as pitched as the club. Its frame may be upholstered or exposed. Don't confuse it with a chaise longue, which reclines.
Two of our favorites: the chenille-covered Umbria Lounge Chair, designed by Orlando Diaz-Azcuy for McGuire Furniture Co., made of rattan and woven split peel, and inspired by Italian lounge furniture of the 1920s (there's also a matching Umbria Ottoman); and the Adagio Lounge Chair, which has a solid maple frame covered in cream-colored leather. The piece was designed by Mark Goetz for Bernhardt Furniture Company with, says the New York designer, "very fluid lines and welcoming forms" in mind.
Tub or barrel chairs are the coziest of all armchairs, their small frame, sculpted arms, and low, horseshoe-shaped backs giving a cocoonlike sense of comfort. "I've never designed a barrel chair and had someone sit in it and not find it comfortable," says furniture designer Mark Goetz. "They perfectly conform to our back's natural shape." And, adds designer John Hutton, "They don't take up much room."
This chenille-covered barrel chair with crescent-shaped ottoman, available from Dennis Miller Associates in New York, was designed in 1947 by German designer Vladimir Kagan.
According to Miller, it went out of favor in the '70s and '80s with the onset of high-tech, but has made an amazing comeback.
"Kagan has an incredible sense of proportion," says Miller. "This chair has a romanticism, a lyricism people want without being traditional." To accommodate taller people, it also comes in a 34-inch-back height.
The club chair, which is very much in vogue today, is usually fully upholstered (often in leather) and has short legs. "Club chairs have a more dramatic pitch than lounge chairs," says designer Mark Goetz. Traditionally, they also have a rounded back. "The idea was that people could walk by them in clubs without bumping into the backs," says designer Orlando Diaz-Azcuy. Two fine examples: The leather Vanity Fair Chair, designed by Vignelli Associates for Poltrona Frau, whose beechwood frame and vulcanized horsehair—goose feather cushions are upholstered in full-grain leather; and The Edward Chair, designed by Geoff De Sousa for Agnes Bourne Inc., whose alder frame is upholstered in chocolate-brown mohair and its foam—down cushion in charcoal mohair.
A fauteuil, any upholstered chair with open arms, is still a mainstay of armchair design. The Grand Soleil, which John Hutton designed for the Donghia collection, is one of his favorites. "I like it because it's open on the sides," says Hutton. "I don't like to be confined."
In the Wings
The wing chair (also called the easy or fireside chair) is a large, usually overstuffed piece with protruding sides, or "wings." It originally appeared in 17th-century France, where it had rigid side panels and was known as a "confessional." The wings were a later modification, designed to capture heat radiating from a fireplace.
According to designer Geoff De Sousa of Agnes Bourne Inc., taller people often prefer wing chairs because of the long back (although some wing chairs are squat). "I think wing chairs are coming back," says Dennis Miller of Dennis Miller Associates. "But they're not extremely popular now." Designer Orlando Diaz-Azcuy says he loves them. "But the back can be uncomfortable," he admits, "and they take up a lot of space. The wings were supposed to keep heat close to you, but they inhibit conversation. They're really designed to be used singly, and put into a corner." Here, the Marilyn Wing Chair from Agnes Bourne Inc., in black leather over a solid maple frame.
Slipper chairs, which are often placed in bedrooms, normally have a "tight seat," or one whose cushion is permanently attached to the frame. Foam—never down or feathers—is used in the cushion because, according to Dennis Miller of Dennis Miller Associates, "You need the foam to hold the shape. It's a different piece of furniture." But the real advantage to the slipper chair, he adds, is that "it takes up less space—physically and aesthetically. It seems more formal, as if to say, 'You can sit on me for a little while.' Two slipper chairs placed opposite each other look great. Then again, so does one alone." Slipper chairs also seem more formal, says designer Mark Goetz, because "they tend to be more tailored. They make me think of movies from the forties."
According to designer John Hutton, slipper chairs are perfectly suited for people with slight physiques because "they feel uncomfortable in large armchairs since their legs hang over the edge."
Most of these showrooms and manufacturers are to-the-trade only, which means you can only purchase from them through an interior designer or architect. Some will let you tour their showroom on your own.
Agnes Bourne Inc. 415-626-6883
B&B Italia 800-872-1697
Baker Furniture 800-592-2537
Bernhardt Furniture Company 828-758-9811
Brunschwig & Fils 212-838-7878
Cassina U.S.A. Inc. 800-770-3568
Cortina Leathers 800-338-6229
Dennis Miller Associates 212-355-4550
Donghia Furniture/Textiles Ltd. 800-366-4442
Edelman Leather 800-886-8339
Herman Miller Inc. 800-646-4400
Hickory Business Furniture (HBF) 800-801-8033
Home Couture 323-936-1302
John Hutton Furnishings (HOLLAND) 31-77-474-0977
K. Flam Associates 718-665-3140
Knoll Inc. 800-445-5045
Kravet Fabrics 888-457-2838
Kroll Furniture 415-621-7500
Ligne Roset 800-297-6738
Mcguire Furniture Co. 800-662-4847
Poltrona Frau 800-858-9374
Stuart Parr Gallery 212-431-0732
These six armchairs are hailed for their design—but how do they rank in terms of comfort? Mark Goetz, furniture designer and professor of design at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, tells Departures why he thinks the three chairs in the top row don't pass the comfort test, while the three in the bottom row do.
Name Red/Blue Chair
Designed by Gerrit T. Reitveld, 1918—23
Materials Solid plywood, polychrome black-and-yellow-stained and lacquered beech frame; polychrome red-and-blue-stained and lacquered seat and back.
Available from Cassina
According to Goetz "It supports the architecture of the Schroder house in Utrecht, Netherlands, for which it was designed. Out of context, it can appear hard-edged and severe; in the right setting, it's fantastic. It's a half-hour chair—sit in it any longer and it's uncomfortable. All those planes of wood are unyielding, and you can't change position easily. Plus, the back is narrow and the arms are high."
Name Wassily Chair
Designed by Marcel Breuer, 1925—27
Materials Tubular steel frame with polished chrome finish; seat, back, and arms in leather.
Available from Knoll Inc.
According to Goetz "This is a true museum piece. What Breuer did with bent metal tubing was so original and so right—everything created since looks descendant from his work. Influenced by the bicycle, this chair implies something massive, yet it's been made elegant by cutting away the fabric and using slender tubing. It's not very comfortable; you feel cramped because the seat angles down so sharply at the back. Because of the sharp pitch, the seat cuts into the backs of your legs."
Name Barcelona Chair
Designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1929
Materials Stainless-steel frame with hand-buffed finish; foam cushions covered in leather; button tufting; cowhide belting straps.
Available from Knoll Inc.
According to Goetz "Currently in production and still in wide use, the Barcelona Chair has come to epitomize modernism. This is another chair designed for a specific place: the German Pavilion at the 1929 International Exhibition in Barcelona. Without question, it's a design masterpiece, one of the the greatest chairs of the twentieth century. But the chair was not meant to be sat in for long periods of time. The concave back is hard on the spine."
Name The Ambassador Chair
Designed by Warren McArthur, 1932
Materials Silver anodized tubular aluminum frame; leather-upholstered seat, back, and arms.
Available from Stuart Parr Gallery in New York
According to Goetz "McArthur is a unique American designer whose work has become extremely popular within the past ten years. This chair is sleek and sophisticated, exemplifying Art Deco and the celebration of Machine Art. The aluminum tubing is lightweight, and slim leather cushioning gives it a modicum of comfort. This is a good reading chair: The ninety-degree seat-to-back angle encourages upright posture. If I were to spend much time in this chair, I'd put a pillow behind my back for more support."
Name Womb Chair
Designed by Eero Saarinen, 1947—48
Materials Foam frame over molded fiberglass shell, covered in fabric or leather; steel-rod base; fabric-covered latex polyester fiber and foam cushions.
Available from Knoll Inc.
According to Goetz "It's one of the most sculptural armchairs around. It's revolutionary because of its complex, curved fiberglass shell. The organic shape is sensuous, and makes the chair comfortable. Saarinen often worked with Charles Eames early in their careers, and there is great similarity in their furniture—especially in the way the curving shapes accommodate the body. This chair invites you to curl up inside."
Name Eames Lounge Chair
Designed by Charles and Ray Eames, 1956
Materials Rosewood (no longer produced), cherry, or walnut-faced molded plywood; cast-aluminum base; leather upholstery.
Available from Herman Miller Inc.
According to Goetz "This is one of the few armchairs that fit in everywhere, from a recreation room to an upscale Manhattan office. I have it in my office and find it supportive enough to read in, but comfy and soft enough to sleep in. The chair rotates atop a five-star base that has rubber shock mounts for added flexibility. The form, which is made of curved plywood, cradles your body. In terms of ergonomics and materials, this chair was way ahead of its time."