Chesterfield sofa: an enduring design

A Moroccan leather button-tufted chesterfield sofa from the living room of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy mansion sold for $27,500 + the buyer’s premium in December 2018 at Julien’s Auctions. Photo courtesy of Julien’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – The chesterfield sofa is so ubiquitous that it has become the standard description for any upholstered or leather-tufted, deep-buttoned sofa having rolled arms and decorative buttons. They usually have a low back and high arms but not always. A staple of British furniture, this style soon transcended libraries and parlors to become a design icon, to be at home in everyday living rooms around the world.

Traditionally made by hand, these were crafted of fine hardwoods and the upholsterer, known as a “deep buttoner,” was responsible for cutting the fabric just right and securing the stuffing to the proper proportions. Horsehair was used as filling in the earliest sofas but as this material would succumb to moisture and thin out over time, synthetic materials and upholstery foam are used today. The typical chesterfield sofa has over 1,000 decorative hardnail studs hammered into place to accent the front arm facing, front border and outside back corners. It is also characterized by its deeply set buttons.

Made with leather and carved wood, this circa 1890 Victorian chesterfield sofa brought $6,500 in April 2015 at Wright. Photo courtesy of Wright and LiveAuctioneers

The exact genesis of how the chesterfield got its name has been lost to history but popular lore says that it was named for Lord Philip Stanhope, the fourth Earl of Chesterfield (1694–1773), who was known for being something of a fashion expert. There is also a story floating around the Internet that the plethora of buttons on these sofas was put on to make the furniture not very comfortable, thus discouraging visitors from staying too long. According to an article in The Independent, “Expensive pieces of furniture even then, they often belonged to rich men of standing who would often have people waiting to see them. The buttons were designed to discourage them from staying.” While this can’t be verified as canon, it certainly makes for an interesting story.

Leather chesterfield sofas, whether dyed in traditional black, dark brown or green as well as fashion-forward gold or lighter colors, are back in style and a great piece to build a room around. Well suited to all decor styles, these sofas blend well in a modern home and introduce an element of tradition. Place a small rug in front of it and you have a focal point.

A vintage green leather chesterfield sofa having a button-tufted back, arms and seat, as well as brass nailhead trim, realized $5,000 + the buyer’s premium in January 2019 at Neal Auction Co. Photo courtesy of Neal Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

While vintage leather chesterfields account for most of the highest prices on LiveAuctioneers’ price results database, upholstered ones are also desirable, such as this large Victorian example in a red damask-type upholstery from Howard & Sons that sold in March 2017 for £3,250 ($3,946) + the buyer’s premium at The Pedestal, and the chesterfield sofa (below) made circa 2005 by Clarke & Reilly in a modern reworking of a circa 1870 chesterfield sofa using 1920s damask cloth. The sofa features hand-stitched and patch-worked upholstery. The design team of Clarke & Reilly has been transforming found furniture forms into works of functional art since 2005.

This Clarke & Reilly chesterfield sofa, a modern transformation of an antique form, earned $9,000 + the buyer’s premium in April 2015 at Wright. Photo courtesy of Wright and LiveAuctioneers

Not surprisingly, furniture makers are still making chesterfield-style sofas today. A contemporary Italian sofa in the chesterfield style, outfitted with gold upholstery and on four flattened ball feet, made €6,000 ($6,660) + the buyer’s premium in July 2015 at Auctionata Paddle 8 AG. It is notable for its outwards curved armrests that are embroidered with buttons in the chesterfield style.

A large chesterfield sofa, gold-colored, Italy, 21th century, made €6,000 ($6,660) + the buyer’s premium in July 2015 at Auctionata Paddle 8 AG. Photo courtesy of Auctionata Paddle 8 AG and LiveAuctioneers

There were dozens of style/pattern variations of the chesterfield with Edwardian and Victorian ones quite desirable. This Edwardian-style chesterfield, having a mahogany frame with button tufted caramel leather and brass tack upholstery, sold at Leland Little Auctions in September 2012 for $6,500 + the buyer’s premium.

While the earliest chesterfields were likely not too comfortable with stiff buttoned backs, tough leather and no spring coils in the seating (these were not patented until 1828), the Victorian era ushered in changes that saw furniture become more comfortable and luxurious.

From the 19th century on, the chesterfield has held pride of place in the finest of homes, hotel lobbies and men’s clubs where having a chesterfield in either sumptuous velvet or leather was a status symbol. Noted psychiatrist Sigmund Freud reportedly favored this seating style for his patients so they could share their deepest secrets while he watched and took notes, just out of sight. His grandson, Lucien Freud, a well-known painter, even painted several works where a chesterfield appeared.

The chesterfield has evolved slightly over the years as tastes changed with models in nearly every color of the rainbow available today in a variety of fabrics but it remains an icon of great design.