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Publication Date: 2014-02-01

Design Insights

Gorgeous Club Chairs

A NICE FILLING | A man chair that’s good enough for the ladies is substantive, but with style. That means pretty fabric, diminutive lines and the right balance of down, feathers and foam.

I HAD TO LAUGH when at a recent dinner party in New Orleans our host dropped into his Archie Bunker-esque easy chair for a quick mid-meal-prep massage. The sensual back rub was administered by his XXL man-sized recliner. The cushy leather behemoth whispered into his ear to “lie back and relax” while simultaneously slipping off his shoes. Distracted by the fact that he’d won the argument to park this bit of ugly in the corner of an otherwise good-looking room, I had failed to detect the desire in my own husband’s eyes.
On the way home, I mentioned the elephant in the corner. “Can you believe how hideous?” To which my husband responded, “let’s get one.” This conversation set in motion my quest for the holy grail of arm chairs, where comfort doesn’t necessarily trump looks.

Coziness has never been my strong suit. Historically I gravitate toward leggy Louis settees and tightly upholstered slipper chairs that look great at a party, but won’t exactly cradle you in front of the television. I have always bought for looks rather than function, which is why we watch TV in bed.

The difference between a monster piece of upholstery and something presentable is scale and stuffing. A sturdy frame with a deep seat and soft cushioning is the starting point. If you have the luxury of time and money, your first move should be straight to the custom upholsterer. Shopping for chairs and sofas at Luther Quintana Upholstery in New York definitely puts you on the inside. Mr. Quintana and family have been in business for over 25 years, making furniture by hand for decorators like Jeffrey Bilhuber and Miles Redd. Quintana’s elves are willing to do whatever it takes, even rebuilding a piece from scratch.

I queried Luther Junior about the specifics of achieving comfort in an armchair. “31-28-40,” he said, “these are your optimal measurements. Stretching beyond that is a bad idea.” Thirty-one inches refers to the height of the back of the chair from bottom to top, 28 inches is the golden number for seat width and 40 inches is as deep as you’d want to go to accommodate a man’s hind quarters (37 inches deep for a tall woman). But these are just guidelines. When you commission a piece of furniture, it should fit you like a hand-tailored suit.

I once heard Mr. Bilhuber referring to a pair of chairs as looking pregnant. You knew exactly what he meant. Overstuffed cushions. To avoid fecund furniture, Mr. Quintana recommends loose seat and back cushions that are 80% down and 20% feathers with a “super soft” foam insert. A handmade armchair, perfectly sized and stuffed, is going to run anywhere from $3,200-$4,500, not including fabric.

"The most important piece of furniture you have is the one in front of the TV," joked decorator Markham Roberts. He lovingly refers to his own power seat as the MCCE (Most Comfortable Chair Ever). And it is. Custom-made at Quintana’s, it handily holds its own against the Magnum "Catnapper" from the Bass Pro Shop. When I asked Mr. Roberts if he would consider using a recliner on one of his projects, he responded thoughtfully, "I have not before, nor will I probably ever."

Funnily, Mr. Roberts does not stand alone. I can’t find a single decorator who does use a recliner. My decorating hero, the lively octogenarian Gerrie Bremermann, swears the Eames Lounge Chair and ottoman is a fine proxy. A lean comfortable classic from the ’50s, it can mix in with more traditional furniture if you are clever. The only drawback is it doesn’t give massages.

—Ms. Costello is a writer and design consultant in New Orleans.


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