Club chairs owe a lot to Victorian advances in upholstery techniques. Earlier padded chairs just had a light layer of horsehair stuffing – kept in place by quilting in the 17th century, or by tufted deep stitches for the 18th century’s thicker padding. As the 1800s progressed, chair makers explored ways of adding more stuffing without having it slipping around inside the cover. Buttons helped avoid stitching problems – hence button-back chairs and sofas, and the style sometimes called Chesterfield. Manufacturers also devised double-cone shape springs and an effective way of tying them into position.
Not all comfortably padded late Victorian armchairs followed the lines of what we now consider traditional” club chairs. They could have tightly-scrolled arms, side pieces like wing chairs, and/or decoratively carved parts of the wooden structure on display. Meanwhile, upholsterers were becoming skilled at “over-stuffing” – bringing the stuffing over the frame, so seating was soft and padded throughout, as distinct from wooden chairs with separate patches of cushioning on the back, seat and arms. Over-stuffing and interior springing were crucial steps towards a 20th century club chair.
The name “club chair” was not yet the norm, though the gentlemen’s clubs of London, New York, and other cities made a point of providing luxurious seats for their members. The 1800s and 1900s saw regular descriptions of club members relaxing, or “lolling” at ease. In England during World War 1 some people felt the relaxation contrasted too much with other men’s service in battle and “the comic papers were driven to satirize fat old men, sitting comfortably in club chairs”. (GB Shaw 1919)
At this time the phrase “club chair” or “club armchair” still literally meant a chair in a club, not at home, while conjuring up visions of a luxurious, well-sized chair. Gradually a particular kind of well-sprung, generously padded chair with a deep seat cushion became inevitably associated with clubs. The 1920s and 1930s established a style of fairly low, substantial leather armchair with a springy seat, soft yet supportive, and arms you could really lean on as a “club” design. This cartoon from the 1940s shows how clubs and leaning back in a certain kind of easy chair went together in the imagination.
In the mid-20th century “club chair” came to mean various kinds of solid, comfortable armchairs designed for the home. Some were covered in cloth, not leather. Some had avant-garde designer styling, like le Corbusier’s Grand Confort chair. Backs could be sloping, or rounded; arms varied from very wide to compact. All offered levels of comfort which may seem normal to us, but seen in the light of history they were the ground-breaking results of 19th century innovation. Many of these chairs were leather, like those in clubs or hotel lounges.
There is no hard and fast definition of a club chair beyond the “thickly upholstered armchair of the type often found in clubs” of the Oxford English Dictionary, so no-one can say that they ‘should’ be leather. Yet an association remains between classic club chairs and leather, as you can confirm with a quick google image search. Is it their history in gentlemen’s clubs? It’s almost an interior design cliché that gentlemen and leather go together. (Check out den and study furnishing features in magazines.) Is it their sturdy practicality? Luxury? Because good quality leather ages gracefully? It’s not easy to pin down, but if you buy a leather club chair you will definitely be following in the tradition of Edwardian and inter-war club armchairs.
Note: More information on construction history from the Grove Encyclopedia of Decorative Arts (19th century “seat furniture”) and the German Wikipedia (20th century art deco Clubsessel). Expert tips on understanding contemporary leather club chairs in the New York Times, January 22, 1998, Trade Secrets; The Private Life of Club Chairs.
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