Image above: Illustration by Julia Rothman
As all fainting Victorian ladies knew, there is nothing more romantic that a chaise longue. My mom and I had our own little struggle over the vintage chaise longue in her garage (and I’ll use this moment to say that if it doesn’t get recovered soon, I’m coming with a truck to bring it to New York!). While the name is French, the lineage of the chaise longue can be traced back to Egyptians who originated the blend of the chair and the daybed. Let me pause and say that the French have a name for pretty much every type of furniture, so identifying what is a chaise longue versus a divan, a daybed or settee can be pretty confusing. So let’s just work with the broadest definition: a long chair. (And while I’m writing chaise longue for this post — pronunciation here — I’m not offended if you write or say chaise lounge.) — Amy A.
Image above: Roman dining couch, Metropolitan Museum of Art
The favorite article of furniture in a Roman home was the lectus. Not that you should get your historic information from movies, but anyone who’s ever watched a film set in ancient Rome knows that it was customary to position three of these couches at right angles to each other for dining. The Romans did not practice upholstery, so the couches were made comfortable with pillows, loose covers and animal skins — expeditions to Africa brought pelts of exotic animals into the Roman home.
Image above: Portrait of Madame Récamier by Jacques-Louis David (1800, Louvre)
The shining moment for the chaise came in 1800, when the chair received the ultimate marketing treatment guaranteed by ad execs everywhere to sell any product: a beautiful woman draped all over it. The chaise had already been a fixture in high-society homes, but Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of Madame Récamier on a chaise longue sparked such a popular interest in the piece that to this day, it is often referred to as the récamier. (Of course, why have one name when you can have many? The French also call this piece a turquoise, lit de repos, veilleuse and a duchesse.) When women received guests from the chaise longue, they were expected to hide their bare feet with a small throw made of embroidered silk. (For artistic effect, David left Madame Récamier’s feet bare.)
CLICK HERE for more chaise longue history + a chaise longue round-up!
Image above: Jean Harlow making the most of the chaise
For the Victorians, the chaise longue was a central part of every over-furnished living room (the Victorians loved their furniture). The chaise was also important component in Freudian psychoanalysis, wherein patients reclined as their dreams were interpreted. Then in the 1930s, the chaise longue was associated with Hollywood glamor. Any leading lady worth her salt — think Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow or Gloria Swanson — would drape herself seductively across a chaise longue for photos and film shoots (preferably clothed in a satin nightgown).
Image above: Charlotte Perriand on the B306 Chaise Longue, 1928
Like Hollywood starlets, modern designers embraced the form of the chaise longue. Le Corbusier together with Charlotte Perriand and Edouard Jeanneret designed the Chaise Longue B306 — one of the best-known modern pieces. The chaise longue was perfect for the modern discussion about society and modern living: it was functional, could be used in any room (both indoor and out) and was easy to mass-produce. That the form of the chaise longue has pleased everyone from Roman Caesars to the pickiest modern designers says a little something about its mass appeal.
Facts to Know
- Madame Récamier, subject of Jacques-Louis David’s painting, was married at 15 to Jacques Récamier, who was 30 years her senior. It is believed that he was in fact her natural father and married her to make her his heir.
- When the 24-year-old Charlotte Perriand, who would co-design the Chaise Longue B306, first went to Le Corbusier’s studio in 1927 and asked him to hire her as a furniture designer, his response was, “We don’t embroider cushions here.” Only after seeing the rooftop bar that Perriand had created in glass, steel and aluminum did Le Corbusier apologize and invite her to join his studio.
Books to Read
- Chairs by Judith Miller — Judith Miller is pretty much the last word on antique connoisseurship. She shares 100 of her favorite chairs in this book.
- Chairs: A History by Florence de Dampierre — Seriously one of my all-time favorite books. If you have a thing for chairs, put this one on your list!
- The Phillips Guide to Chairs by Peter Johnson
So if all this talk of the chaise longue as the perfect piece of furniture has whet your appetite, here are a few of my favorites. Although honestly, I’m dying to find something perfect at a flea market (Please Brimfield! Make it happen!) and have it recovered by Nightwood. In the meantime, I’m going to console my chaise longue-less self with a macaron. Preferably the salted-caramel variety.
Image above: 1. Zoe Throw, $135; 2. Brasserie Ramekin, $10; 3. Lee Industries Chaise; 4. Duchess Chaise Longue, $1,743; 5. Paulette’s Macarons; 6. Rubber Vase, $39; 7. CMYKIT Pendant Lamp, $17; 8. Continental Chaise, $1,185; 9. Herringbone Cushion, $48
Image above: 1. Hello Sunshine Bag, $275; 2. Heirloom Watermelon Seeds, $2; 3. Karlskrona, $169; 4. Ben Collection Bowl, $8; 5. Banda Chaise, $398; 6. Fruit Infusion Pitcher, $26; 7. Tunisian Basket Weave Glasses, $25; 8. Wall Planter, $72; 9. Barrow Lounger, $329