Why are there wings on a wing chair?

If you’ve ever stopped to consider this question, you’ve likely reached the vague conclusion that wings are decorative. And in the modern sense, they are. We stick wings on everything from recliners to headboards.

(Wing chair recliner reupholstered by Sitzen Design & Upholstery in Missouri)

But in truth, wings were an ingenuous design solution: They created an envelope of protection from cold drafts, trapping warm air around the lucky ducky sitting between them.

Modern wing chair, reupholstered by Clark’s Fabrication in Michigan
Isn’t that wonderful?

Imagine living in an old, drafty house. Imagine how great that wing chair must have felt in front of a roaring fire. It’s a wonder anyone climbed out long enough to invent central heating.

Marit from our Wednesday mentorship group, test driving her reupholstered wing chair (insert roaring fire for full effect) 
I can’t remember where I learned this fun tidbit (though I took the time to research and confirm it before writing this post) but I just think it’s fascinating. It’s such a prime example of how furniture design follows function. I think we forget that, sometimes. Aesthetics are only part of the fun.

For the most part, this evolution is subtle – furniture has gradually gotten larger, for example – as have we, as have our homes. You need only travel as far as the nearest antique shop to confirm this.


But sometimes furniture takes a quirky turn, reflecting brief, specific moments of strange or forgotten history. Here are three of my favorite examples:

The Fainting Couch:

Fainting couch restored/reupholstered by Decor Upholstery in Sydney
A petite, asymmetrical sofa style popular with woman in the 19th century. This is – well -exactly what it sounds like . . . though the origins and truth of the style are somewhat muddled.

Some say it was for women who would occasionally faint from their restrictive corsets and delicate nature. Others say it was for treating female hysteria through regular massage with a doctor or midwife.

Why so tense, ladies? I suppose if I had a 16″ corseted waist and no voting rights, I’d want a fainting couch, too. Just bring a glass of wine and shut the door, okay?

Fabulous updated fainting couch by Desert Canary Design in Texas.

The Courting Bench

Another Victorian gem! This style features two attached seats facing in opposite directions so sweethearts could make eyes without getting too rubby dubby.  Imagine the neighbors gossiping about your premarital hip contact!!!!! The scandal!!!!

tete a tete
Example featured on Victorian Antiquities and Design 
Although, as noted by Paul Wilham on Victorian Antiquities and Design, “Courting sofa was something of a misnomer as few mothers would dare let a potential caller sit that close to one’s daughter.”

YEAH!!!! What kind of a mother are, anyway?????

This style is also referred to as a kissing bench or a tête-à-tête.

Want to read more? Here’s a fabulous article:   Courting Sofas: Furniture For Wooing Sweethearts in Style  It  includes photos of a 3 person courting chair designed for a rather saucy 20th-century lady, rarrrr!!!!  Don’t lose your invitation to HER party!!!!

The Gossip Bench

This one is my FAVORITE. I don’t hoard antiques, but if I ever have a pole barn, I’m going to fill it with gossip benches: they were a chair with a built-in table for your phone.

IMG_9198 compressed
Telephone bench/gossip bench reupholstered by L’atelier du Cap Gris-Nez
Remember that????? Remember when your phone was attached to the WALL?????? At first, we didn’t even have those giant cordless hand helds, or even the super long cord!!!!!!! Forget about multitasking –  If you wanted to talk on the phone, you had to actually sit down and focus. . . Or STAND, I guess, until some genius invented the gossip bench.

A gossip bench was this truly elegant solution to a common inconvenience that is now totally extinct.

I recently took my 11 year old to the Weismann Art Museum. He enjoyed the paintings and sculptures, but what he REALLY wanted to talk about was the phone in their entryway:

“OKAY!!! How does this work?? Do you dial and THEN pick it up? What’s OPER?”

Studying ancient history at The Weismann Art Museum
Never in his life has he known the inconvenience of standing in one spot to talk on the phone. What on earth would he do with a gossip bench?? Give it to his mom, I guess <3

Join us this week on YouTube to watch Aunt Bea get her wings (and also to see me and The Fabulous Amy Oh go slightly off the rails. It was a long day.)

How do YOU think furniture design has changed in the last 100 years? Where do you think it’s headed next? Drop a comment, here or on Facebook – we’d love to hear your thoughts! 


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