What represents britishness like Big Ben and fish & chips, but with the timeless style of blue jeans? The Chesterfield Armchair, of course.
The name Chesterfield once referred to nothing more than a pleasant market town in Derbyshire, which is still famous for its crooked church spire that twists and turns as if caught in a whirlwind.
That all started to change in March 1773, when one of the town’s leading noblemen passed away: Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, a man of letters and a patron of Voltaire. Legend has it that the Earl’s last words to his manservant were “Give Dayrolles a chair”. The servant, lacking his master’s enlightened mind, took Stanhope at his word and waving away protests, insisted that Stanhope’s godson Dayrolles, a budding young diplomat who had come to enquire after the elderly man’s health, take the armchair with him. It was only once he got home that Dayrolles had a proper look at the chair: a magnificent piece of work in deep brown leather, indented with large, deeply set buttons. The years of wear had served to lend the item an even more attractive air. It was an ageless and timeless masterpiece. This chair may even have been the inspiration behind an old oddity of the British upper classes, who used to ask their household staff to wear their sparkling brand new shoes until they were almost worn out, insisting that shabby chic was the latest trend. In any case, the Chesterfield armchair, along with the matching sofa, retained its distinguished charm over the years, but remained firmly ensconced in the Gentlemen’s Clubs of London until very recently. All the colour schemes and successive models (sofas, settees, window seats, rocking chairs, etc.) that have been designed over the last 200 years are all directly inspired by the original. Dayrolles spread the word so successfully that it soon became a peerless emblem of British style. However, the Chesterfield legend was only really born in the last third of the 20th century. Only once the chair emerged from its traditional home alongside paintings by the Old Masters and pretentious bourgeois drawing rooms was its matchless studded leather upholstery adopted by antiques enthusiasts and retro rock groups looking to relax after a gig. A vintage icon was born in a range of classic, limited, reworked, customised or tongue-in-cheek editions featuring leather or faux leather, velvet or cheap plastic in colours such as white, purple, hot pink, silver, gold and even Union Jack motifs. The odd thing is that despite worldwide success, no one has ever thought or managed to register the Chesterfield name as a trademark. Instead, in typically discreet British fashion, the name has slipped gradually into the public domain over the centuries. That said, there is nothing democratic about the price of a genuine Chesterfield antique!
Text : Yvette Gallois - Artwork : Xavier Bouré