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The secret history of... The Chesterfield

By Kate Watson-Smyth

There's no doubt the Chesterfield sofa is a classic. No one would dispute that it has earned its place as a design icon. But there is some confusion in how it came to be so named and why that has come to be a shorthand way of describing a deep-buttoned, leather-covered sofa.

Paul Fleming, the fourth generation of furniture makers at Fleming Howland, whose company won the right to copyright the name Chesterfield, says the origin of the name is a real mystery. "Originally chesterfield just meant a sofa or even a piece of furniture," he said. "We have been making them for years and we have been to museums and done lots of research and we can't find a single piece of paper to explain its origin.

"It appears to be nothing more than a description of a sofa that has evolved over the centuries."

Of course, there are anecdotes. Some say, unsurprisingly, that it was named after the Earl of Chesterfield, who was a public speaker and something of a fashion expert in his day. The story goes that on his deathbed, with his servant and his friend, Mr Dayrolls, in attendance, his last words, to his servant, were: "Give Mr Dayrolls a chair." Then he died. The servant apparently was confused as to whether the Earl meant his friend should sit down or have a chair as a present. The story has lived on, but the Earl would not have meant a sofa, Fleming says. One has to assume that Mr Dayrolls wasn't seen strolling down the street with a sofa on his back.

In the late 18th century, deep-buttoning on furniture was also fashionable but in velvet, not leather. So there are no clues there either. Fleming says the proper definition of a Chesterfield is a sofa with the arms and back at the same height.

The buttons were apparently developed to make the chairs more uncomfortable. Expensive pieces of furniture even then, they often belonged to rich men of standing who would often have people waiting to see them. The buttons were designed to discourage them from staying.

Whatever its origins, the Chesterfield is a classic item that symbolises a certain style. Still popular in gentlemen 's clubs, there has also been a return to the original form with velvet chesterfields increasing in popularity. To own (or at least desire) a purple velvet Chesterfield is to be marked as officially middle class.

While there are dozens of places to buy a Chesterfield, Fleming Howland produces one made abroad and two others in the UK using traditional techniques.