In a softly lit room lounges a thirtysomething woman in the throes of divorce. And she is happy. She has a new job, a new house, a new life. But most significant, she has a new piece of furniture — a chaise longue on which she frequently reposes, relishing her newfound freedom.
“I got it when I was splitting with my husband,” Vancouver public-relations consultant Gwendolyne Gawlick remembers. “The chair was part of that process of independence, and it went with me when I was leaving the marital home. He got the Shaker easy chair.”
The chaise longue in question, to get it just right in your mind, has rounded feminine curves upholstered in a leopard print. Its owner calls it A Room of One’s Own, after the classic Virginia Woolf essay in which a woman’s independence is linked to having a place that is exclusively hers.
Let men keep their La-Z-Boys. The chaise longue is the true seat of feminine mystique.
In between a day bed and a sofa, this stylish piece of furniture has historically played a role in the social emancipation of women. Think Cleopatra reclining on her divan, holding the asp whose deadly bite would free her from the humiliation of being a slave to Imperial Rome. Think Sarah Bernhardt, the groundbreaking French stage actress, whose chaise longue (literally, “long chair”) was the proverbial casting couch, where dozens of lovers auditioned for a part in her sexually liberated life.
The chaise’s patron saint is Jeanne Françoise Bernard Comtesse de Récamier, whom the neoclassical painter David illustriously depicted reclining on a backless chaise that after 1777 became known as a Récamier.
“She was famous for her intelligence, wit and beauty,” Calgary interior designer Coco Cran says. “All during the Restoration, she entertained, in the reclining position, the upper echelons of the intellectual society. Among her close friends was Châteaubriand. Under her auspices, women have found assurance and confidence and comfort — you cannot share it.”
Though it never went out of style in certain quarters, the chaise is once again in the ascendant. It’s also a prime example of the trend to multifunctional furniture among dwellers of small urban spaces — it’s good for sitting, sleeping and anything else in between.
But the new chaise is a stripped-down affair, more likely to be upholstered in hot-pink felt than the traditional plush velvet. Rashid’s Q-Chaise for Umbra is made of a cube of solid foam carved into two upholstered pieces, a chair and a curvy footstool, that together form a chaise. When space is at a minimum, it fits back together into a cube.
It’s a space-agey look that is more likely to appeal to the male of the species, who tend to prefer the lean and mean modern take on the chaise — Le Corbusier, for example, in hard black leather. But the typical buyer of a chaise is female, says Susanne Plummer, president of Toronto-based Natural By Design, which imports handcrafted wicker and leather chaises from Germany for distribution across North America.
“The chaise is a sensual piece of furniture, so naturally women are attracted to it,” says Plummer.
“Women buy them more than men, by far,” agrees Hamid Samad, co-owner of Commute, a home décor store selling a variety of vintage and custom-order chaise longues on Toronto’s trend-conscious Queen Street West.
Samad, whose particular favourite is a neo-Renaissance beauty with a curved back, describes the chaise as a piece of furniture that is “comfortable for one, intimate for two; a good place to be alone and a good place to have sex.”
In the Brad Pitt film, Meet Joe Black, death and the maiden (played by Claire Forlani) have life-affirming sex on a poolside chaise longue. In Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections,the chaise is a metaphor for sensual obsession: The male protagonist makes mad love to a woman who eventually abandons him; to recapture her memory, he roots for her secreted scent in the tufts of the chaise that supported their affair.
“He worked his lips down into the chaise’s buttoned navels and kissed the lint and grit and crumbs and hairs that had collected in them. None of the three spots where he thought he smelled Melissa was unambiguously tangy, but after exhaustive comparison he was able to settle on the least questionable of the three spots, near a button just south of the backrest, and give it his full nasal attention.”
It has as many moods as styles. Backless, it is practical. Asymmetrical, it is playful. Curvaceous, like the knock-out Linea chaise from Italian manufacturer Paola Lenti, it is very sexy — and ready for action. But you have to have the stamina, says Vicki Lygouriatis, who offers the Linea up for sale at Toronto’s Quasi Modo. “The Linea chaise has caught the attention of the twentysomething crowd up to the late 30s, since it is quite low to the ground and requires a lot of action to get in and out of.”
The versatility of the chaise is a boon to home decorators like Toronto’s Sasha Josipowicz, who views it as the most functional piece of furniture in his repertoire of interior design tools. “Depending on the person, depending on the atmosphere you want to create, the chaise has as many faces as Mata Hari,” he says.
But behind the diversity of looks lies a singular purpose: “It is where you expect to seduce or be seduced.”
Some of his clients have felt uneasy about Josipowicz’s insistence on a chaise as an integral part of their décor. Says writer-turned-senator Linda Frum, “I was never sure about having a bed in my living room. It was altogether too suggestive.”
But to Jessica Cherniak, her Récamier-style chaise is escapism on a William Morris print. The recently separated mother of four calls it the “Don’t Bug Me chaise longue.”
As a birth facilitator and personal trainer, the Vancouver resident is constantly involved in work that is physical and giving to others. The chaise is her retreat. “It is an island that gives me distance from the rest of life and a place from which I can observe and conquer,” she says. “I would call it the centre of my sanctuary.”