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Occasional Chair

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Occasional Chair

Date: c. 1880
Medium: Ash, black walnut, original silk and needlework upholstery
Dimensions:
Overall: 35 1/4 × 25 1/2 × 32 1/2in. (89.5 × 64.8 × 82.6cm)
Signed: On caster: 'THE INDIA RUBBER COMB CO. NEW YORK / 15'
Credit Line: Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Ernest C. Shortliffe
Object number: 85.3
Label Text
This type of overstuffed chair may have been made as a single accent chair, but it was more likely to have been sold with a settee and one or more armchairs as part of a "Turkish" parlor suite. Turkish suites were produced by the mid-1870s, but they were never highly popular in the middle-class market perhaps because of their expense, their relative fragility compared with forms made with more substantial wooden frames, and the social ambiguities of their apparent invitation to relax in formal rooms.

This chair is a rare survival that demonstrates the international influence of high-style French upholstery design. The use of silk satin as upholstery fabric seems ridiculously impractical, but it appeared by the early 1840s on French-style furniture in American interiors and resurfaced periodically throughout the nineteenth century as a frank extravagance. A contrasting strip of needlework running from the crest to the seat front appears in French upholstery design by the 1820s. The practice became one of the most beloved conventions of fancy upholstery in America after 1870.

ATD



Text Entries
This chair is rare, apparently intact, survival that effectively demonstrates the international influence of high-style French upholstery design, its dissemination far from large fashion centers during the nineteenth century, and the longevity of some of its visual conven­tions in the United States. Because of its fragile condition the interior structure of the chair cannot be analyzed, but it has a wooden frame and a spring seat and back.(1) The color combination, the quality of the needlework strip, and the use of heavy silk satin as the primary cover fabric suggest that this piece may date from the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The design, however, was not new; it dates from the Second Empire (1852-70), a period of great innovation in French upholstery design and technique in both drapery and seating   furniture.(2)

In the late 1830s the name confortable was first applied to overstuffed chairs with springs. By the Second Empire, forms of overstuffed seating proliferated to  include, among others, poufs (overstuffed backless seats), fauteuils de cercle (barrel chairs), crapauds ("toad" chairs of squatty proportions), and meridiennes (napping couches). So, too, did styles profilerate. Some confortables were actually loose interpretations of classic seventeenth- and eighteenth­century modes, swaddled in fabric and stuffing, while others were clearly intended to be "Oriental." "Turkish" furniture forms, which invited sensual, relaxed postures different from the deportment required in formal social life, appeared in France as early as the late seventeenth century.(3) Nineteenth-century versions, however, display a virtuosity in fabric treatment and trimming that seems to echo French dressmaking. Pleated and buttoned tufting, which was both decorative and stabilizing to deep layers of stuffing materials, was another important element of the Second Empire 's upholstery  aesthetic.

Denise Ledoux-Lebard 's brief catalogue of Second Empire furniture forms and decor illustrates  a "tufted chair with inverted back " close in appearance to the MWPI example.(4) No self-respecting French upholsterer of the time would have been satisfied with such a boring moniker, however. The seventeenth number of V. L. Quetin's Le Magasin de Meubles (ca. 1860), the Album de Sieges, published a number of designs for "sieges riches" (opulently upholstered chairs) and "sieges defantaisies" (fancy chairs, intended for use as single accents to the decor). The "Chaise…genre Bebe" in plate 55 is particularly close to the MWPI chair. Although it lacks the continuous sweep of back and seat, the design does include a roll and macarons with tassels at the crest of the slanted back.(5)

This type of overstuffed chair probably made its first widely noted appearance in America when a "Turkish fauteuil " covered in "white brocade silk" was exhibited at the New York Crystal Palace in 1853.(6) The MWPI example may have been made as a single accent chair, but it was more likely to have been sold with a settee an d on e or more armchairs as part of a "Turkish" parlor suite.(7) Turkish suites were produced by the mid-1870s, but they were never highly popular in the middle-class mark et perhaps because of their expense, their relative fragility compared with more substantial forms with wood frames, and the social ambiguities of their apparent invitation to relax in formal rooms.(8)

The use of silk satin as upholstery fabric on the MWPI chair seems ridiculously impractical, but it appeared in American interiors by the early 1840s on French-style furniture and resurfaced periodically throughout the nineteenth century as a frank extravagance. (9) Contrasting strips of needlework running from crest to seat front appear in French upholstery design by the 1820s, but they (along with imitations printed on velvet, woven of silk and wool, or even depicted illusionistically in the weave of the upholstery fabric itself) became one of the most beloved conventions of fancy upholstery in America after 1870.(10)


Essay by Katherine C. Grier 

 

 

1. A "spring seat" uses metal springs, fastened into the chair frame in a state of tension, to make the seat resilient. The springs are covered with stuffing materials and under - upholstery before the show fabric is added. The use of springs in chairs in the United States began in the 1820s but was not common until the 1850s. Until the nineteenth century the typical upholstery spring was formed into a coil; these have been supplanted in inexpensive and mid-priced furniture by band or sinuous springs, which are less flexible and often have shorter useful lives but are easier to install.

 

2. Until the last twenty-five years, such chairs were little appreciated or preserved. Modernist design historian Siegfreid Giedion bemoaned the era of their creation as a "Reign of the Upholsterer" and decried designs like this one as "blubbery" and "boneless." Siegfreid Giedeon, Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1948), pp. 364, 366.

 

3. For a general discussion of French- and Turkish­style upholstery in America, including this early history, see Katherine C. Grier, Culture and Comfort: People, Parlors, and Upholstery, 1850-1930 (Rochester, N.Y.: Strong Museum, 1988), pp. 163-99.

 

4. Denise Ledoux-Lebard, Meubles et ensembles époque second empire (Paris: Editions Charles Massin, 1966), p. 33 ("chaise captionnee a dossier renverse").

 

5. Le Magasin de Meubles No. 17. Album de Sieges de Fantaisie (ca. 1860): plates 55, 83, 84.

 

6. William C. Richards, A Day at the New York Crystal Palace, and How to Make the Most of It (New York: C. P. Putnam, 1 853), p. 44.

 

7. An armless chair of this style is one of the pieces of a large suite in the Turkish style, upholstered with a very large floral print, that was part of the furnishings of the circa 1885 New York City reception rooms of Mrs. George Frederic Jones (mother of the novelist Edith Wharton). See Peter Thornton, Authentic Decor: The Domestic Interior; 1620 -1920 (London: Weidenfield and Nicholson, 1984), p. 343, p late 459.

 

8. The forms of furniture in the Turkish manner that did achieve popularity with American consumers were the "Turkish rocker" and the backless couch, which was often upholstered with cotton fabric woven in imitation of Oriental rugs. For a fuller discussion of the impact of French and "Turkish" upholstery styles in America, see Grier, Culture and Comfort, pp. 163-99.

 

9. Grier, Culture and Comfort, pp. 24, 32 -35.

 

10. For an X-frame chair which a mauve satin cover with needlework strip, see Albert Keim, Le decoration et le mobilier a l’epoque romantique et sous le second empire (Paris: Editions Nillson [1929]), plate 3, no. 10. See also Grier, Culture and Comfort, pp. 110, 269, plates 9, 20, 37.