History of wing chairs

wing chair upholstered in red
Vivid red upholstery on this reproduction wing chair might have suited Colonial and Georgian tastes. Cabriole legs are a traditional touch. Photo by NCJW Home.

Wing chairs are sometimes called fireside chairs, and for good reason. Their design is perfect for enjoying the warmth of a fire while your back and sides are protected from chilly draughts.

These chairs were not the earliest furniture to use this approach to keeping warm. Wings were also used on some of the high-backed wooden settles (benches) found in English manor houses and inns long before the new kind of upholstered chair brought an extra level of comfort to the late 17th century. We now know these as wing or wingback chairs.

The same chairs soon appeared in colonial America. Like other Queen Anne furniture of the early 1700s, they had cabriole legs and curving lines that distinguished them from earlier styles. The famous cabinet-makers of the age, like Chippendale in London, designed elegant frames to set off the upholstery.

The picture of a wing chair stripped back by museum curators reveals that early padding was not as generous as we expect from a modern armchair. Fabrics were often vividly coloured. Bright patterns were seen in both colonial and Georgian drawing rooms. Restorers of 18th century antiques often favour plain colours, but this is not necessary for authenticity. Leather upholstery is also an option.

wing chair upholstery revealed
Original 18th century shape on the left after layers of 20th century upholstery (right) were stripped away. A New England easy chair with wings. Photo by Bdesham.

If you look at antique French wing chairs, or other chairs echoing the Louis XV or Louis XV period, you may see a lower seat in the bergère style. Similarly, in 18th century England Hepplewhite tried lowering the seat in his designs. He called the wings saddle-cheeks, perhaps knowing that they were called cheeks (joues), not wings, in France. Ears is their other name, used in some parts of Europe, German Ohrensessel for example, and remembered in the old-fashioned British name lug chair. (Lug meant ear.)

American wing chairs, also called easy chairs, were considered suitable as bedroom furniture for anyone frail or tired, sitting quietly in their room. Both antique and modern wing chairs may be associated with elderly people; a firm seat and a back with built-in draught-proofing offer an appropriate kind of comfort, and remind us that another name for this piece of furniture is grandfather chair.

In Britain, wing chairs were thought of as essential for a comfortable living room or parlour. Victorian writers describing scenes of idealised family life round a blazing hearth often mentioned a fireside chair. 19th century chairs were often more generously padded than earlier wingbacks – sometimes with a very firm horsehair stuffing.

contemporary wing chair
A 21st century wingback inspired by 18th century style, by George Smith for the Tom Dixon design studio. Black velvet stuffed with cotton and boar bristle. Photo by pressattomdixon.

Contemporary designers now produce all sorts of shapes and sizes of wing chair. Some blend the wingback concept with cutting-edge contemporary design, and yet the early Queen Anne shape has an enduring popularity. If you want a true antique, remember that “Queen Anne style” is just that: a style and not a promise that a chair is 300 years old.


Photographers credited in captions. Links to originals here: Red wing chair. New England wing chair with stripped back upholstery, Contemporary black wing chair.

More picture info here


Metamorphic library steps, chairs and tables

convertible steps table
Sheraton first published this design for Library Steps & Table in 1793.

In the 18th century wealthy men with private libraries in their grand houses wanted elegant furniture around them. The upmarket cabinet-makers of the period created fine desks and chairs, but how could they design new, improved versions of the step-ladders needed for reaching books from the highest shelves?

One idea was to conceal steps under the seat of a long stool. Turned upright, its upholstered seat to the wall, it made a short ladder with three treads, each smaller than than the last: perhaps not a very stable arrangement. It is rare to find any of these on the antiques market, and it is unlikely that many were made, as better furniture soon followed.

Chippendale designed the kind described above in the 1750s, but in the next decade he created hinged steps that could be folded into a stool. This type can be seen at Harewood House and Nostell Priory in England. One was described at the time as a “large mahogany library stool with the seat to rise as a step ladder the seat stuff’d and cover’d with black leather”. (Nostell Priory accounts 1767) The other was given a neo-classical look with rosewood veneer and marquetry.

Benjamin Franklin had something better than a stool: a leather-upholstered chair with steps beneath. There are claims that his seat was the first ever chair and steps combination. Whether or not this is true, it is comfortable enough to be a real reader’s chair: ideal for someone who loves books as well as good furniture.

Tables were part of this new wave of convertible library furniture, and a British patent for a dual-function table with steps was registered in 1774. Sheraton published a design for one of these library tables before the end of the century. (Picture above)

This design was taken from steps that have been made by Mr. Campbell, Upholsterer to the Prince of Wales. They were first made for the King, and highly approved of by him, as every way answering the intended purpose. There are other kinds of library steps which I have seen, made by other persons, but, in my opinion, these must have the decided preference, both as to simplicity and firmness when they are set up. The steps may be put up in half a minute, and the whole may be taken down and enclosed within the table frame in about the same time.
Thomas Sheraton, The cabinet-maker and upholsterer’s drawing-book, London, 1802 edition

metamorphic library chair steps
Steps folded under the seat of this Morgan & Sanders chair, designed c1811

The name metamorphic (shape-changing) was not used for the earliest pieces of library furniture, but appeared in a London patent of 1811. The first ever “patent metamorphic library chair” with curving arms spawned many varied chair designs, some quite plain, others very elaborate. Georgian or Regency pieces of dual-purpose library furniture can fetch thousands of dollars at antiques auctions, and even later Victorian metamorphic chairs may be quite valuable.

One 19th century curiosity is based on a library staircase design that was boxed in at the sides. One stair-tread was a hinged lid giving access to storage beneath. This was adopted as bedroom furniture and used in some homes as a commode to conceal the chamber pot for night-time use.


Since I first wrote this short piece for another website, Clive Taylor has published a fascinating, detailed, and original dissertation on The Regency Period Metamorphic Library Chair.