A winging streak

The traditional wing-back chair is being reinterpreted in high-tech materials and exaggerated proportions, says Nicole Swengley.

May 01 2011
Nicole Swengley

With tall, elongated backs offering a buffer against chilly draughts and broad, enveloping sides designed to corral fireside warmth, wing chairs have been stalwarts of gentlemen’s clubs and residential drawing rooms since the 18th century. Modern versions of the classic wing chair were popular in the 1950s and 1960s but demand dwindled as homes became centrally heated and homeowners sought sleeker, less conventional alternatives. Now, with the introduction of pared-down or exaggerated shapes, new materials and fashionable colours, the design is firmly back on the radar.

Simon Chaplin, managing director of modern furniture store Chaplins, is a big fan. “There are few better places to hide away with your newspaper or iPad,” he says. “And with so many variations on the classic wing chair now available, it is easy to choose one that fits within any interior, period or contemporary.” Ben de Groot, founder of bespoke furniture manufacturer Ben Whistler, is in complete agreement: “The modern wingback offers more structure than most other contemporary furniture. Its tall back and sturdiness create a perfect place to sit, read or chat, and the variety of modern shapes means that it can work just as well in a city loft as in a Victorian country house.”

Chaplin attributes the current revival to a wide choice of high-tech materials, giving designers much greater artistic licence in reinterpreting the style for modern use. He cites designer Ora Ito’s Evolution chair for Zanotta – an upholstered polyurethane shell on a revolving aluminium base (from £4,065) – and Jan Armgardt’s Jolly chair for Wittmann (from £2,590), a winner of the prestigious Red Dot design award, whose leather-upholstered seat on a cantilevered, tubular aluminium base has the whiff of a Bentley interior (available in red or black).

Contemporary materials and fashionable colours provide a new twist even where the designer adheres to a traditional shape. Spanish designer Jaime Hayón’s Lounger for BD Barcelona (£3,346; footstool, £936) has a familiar form, yet the materials and colours – a painted, tubular steel base and an upholstered, walnut plywood seatback brightly lacquered in blue, red or yellow – give it a fresh look. Similarly, Alfredo Häberli’s Take a Line For a Walk for Moroso (from £2,500; footstool, £1,095) is inspired by a classic wing chair, although it has a lacquered, tubular steel base and polyurethane shell covered in hot fashion colours from Kvadrat’s extensive Divina 3 range.

Conversely, where traditional materials are employed, an exaggerated form is often adopted. Take Tom Dixon’s Wingback (£4,340), for example, with its dramatically tall, tapered back. The chair is handmade in Britain at George Smith’s factory, where the same joinery, upholstery and hand-sewing techniques have been used for more than 250 years. The beech frame and solid, turned legs support steel coil springs, jute webbing, natural cotton wadding, boar bristle, cotton muslin and mohair velvet in a virtuoso combination that justifies the high price-tag of this meticulously made chair.

A hand-crafted beech frame, upholstered in leather or fabric, similarly underpins the witty, exaggerated shape of Happiness Armchair (pictured overleaf, £5,934), designed by Damien Langlois-Meurinne for Sé, a bespoke furniture manufacturer whose aim is to marry traditional craftsmanship with contemporary glamour. Meanwhile, Ben Whistler’s Causey Wingback (from £2,500), with its soaring wings, is another example of a traditionally made chair whose modernised lines allow it to hold its own in a contemporary context. Upholstered in GP & J Baker’s new Threads fabric, it can be customised to suit specific requirements. “This contemporary take introduces curves to the sides and high back, yet the original form is still present in the arms, wings and broad, upright shape,” says de Groot.

Dramatic, sweeping curves also give Christopher Guy’s wing chairs a strong presence. The oversized proportions of Leaf (from £5,429) allow two people to share the asymmetrically shaped chair, which comes in left-hand and right-hand versions. Hand-carved with a solid wood back, Leaf is available in various finishes and upholstery colours. Equally flamboyant is Shelter (from £4,411), whose flared back is carved from mahogany. The chair looks sumptuously regal when upholstered in purple velvet – one of many fabric choices.

This diverse design approach allows contemporary wing chairs to adapt admirably to different rooms and various styles of interior. Sir Terence Conran’s flared-back Matador would, for example, sit happily in a chic, open-plan living space (from the Content by Conran range, £1,017) while the swooping curves of Jackson (from £2,400) are perfect for cosying up to a contemporary, hole-in-the-wall fireside. Jackson is handmade by the Belgian company Marie’s Corner, which also produces the more geometric Dallas chair (from £2,070) and footstool (from £925) – perfect for after-work reclining. Meanwhile, the hour-glass curves of Grande Papilio, designed by Naoto Fukasawa for B&B Italia (from £2,014; footstool, £671), would create an elegant perch for a master bedroom.

Another take on the theme is a winged adaptation of the historic high-back porter’s chair. Christopher Guy’s Alice is a chic, contemporary version finished in white lacquer with a colourful choice of button-back upholstery (from £4,343; also in mahogany), while Marcel Wander’s Tulip chair (from £6,195), launched last year by Cappellini, is poised on a revolving metal base, whose pared-back sides and supremely tall back add glamour and drama.

Elsewhere, online retailer Juliette’s Interiors offers a porter’s chair with a black lacquered frame upholstered in glossy black patent leather (£4,224). “The traditional porter’s chair, designed to keep out chilly draughts, has come a long way since the days when these practical pieces of furniture graced the entrance halls of Edwardian gentlemen’s clubs,” says Juliette Thomas, founder and director of the company. “Our modern version is an altogether sexier and sleeker model. It looks magnificent in a majestically minimal hallway set against pale walls and limestone flooring. Or try it in an open-plan bedroom/bathroom boudoir as a foil for a contemporary boat-shaped bath.”

Sandra Drechsler, creative director of Chelsea-based interior designers Taylor Howes, expresses similar enthusiasm for reworked wing chairs. For one residential project she aims to use contemporary, leather-upholstered wing chairs with chic, beaded trims – the high-backed Bauen (from £3,090 plus fabric and shipping) and the more geometric Tule chair (from £2,575) with ottoman (from £1,150) – from US manufacturer, Ironies. “A favourite of mine is Jaime Hayón’s Arpa chair for Sé Collection II (£4,800) which is made entirely of metal,” says Drechsler. “I particularly like the gold-coloured version which transforms the design into a truly glamorous eye-catcher.”

Indeed, Sé’s founding director, Pavlo Schtakleff, invites the designer appointed to create each new Sé collection to come up with a modern, sculptural counterpart to the classic wing chair, as if he is setting them an aptitude test. “With its curvaceous metal skeleton, Arpa was inspired by a harp,” Schtakleff explains. “It’s made from lacquered steel and the upholstered seat includes a feather layer for extra comfort, creating a counterpoint between the hard structure and soft seating.” To which Hayón adds: “I’m very happy with the sculptural shape and the contrast between a rigid body and a feather cushion. It has the balance between technology and tradition that I love a piece to have.”

Hayón’s lyrical Arpa contrasts with the restrained approach of James UK, an award-winning, contemporary British furniture brand founded in 2006. Its Wingback Chair (from £1,426), shown at the London Design Festival last autumn, has a solid hardwood frame in black lacquered beech or oak or American black walnut with slim, wooden arms forming an integral part of the frame. The chair has a slender profile and conventional, buttoned upholstery in leather or fabric. This pared-back shape works particularly well for the two-seater Double Wingback (from £1,875).

“Our Wingback Chair has proved very popular because people like the familiarity and reference to the past while appreciating its clean, contemporary aesthetic,” says James Harrison, co-partner of James UK.

Hayón, meanwhile, believes wing chairs are “the perfect place to relax, read, have a drink or a coffee. For me, a wing chair can create a cosy universe all of its own. They’re a symbol of comfort and style.” And one, it seems, that is again taking wing.

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