In books, films, and television, the wing chair has become a shorthand signifier for power, depravity, and corruption.
In Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), rival pedophiles Quilty and Humbert, during their final sleazy face-off, fall into two wing chairs. In Billy Wilder’s film Double Indemnity (1944), Barbara Stanwyck cooks up a plot to kill her husband from one wing chair, then hides a gun beneath the cushion of another. On the reality TV show The Apprentice (2004), real-life tycoon Donald Trump indoctrinates or dispenses with tycoons-in-the-making from his corporatized, boardroom wing chair.
Signs generate meaning, but meaning is not absolute; it changes continually as the relationship between viewer/reader and sign is renegotiated. It is possible, for example, to get a wing chair today without being a real estate tycoon or a corrupt bank CEO. You can purchase your very own Chippendale wing chair for five dollars on eBay or go DIY and make your own with help from the short Howcast.com video How to Make a Cardboard Chair. Regardless of these sweet, democratizing advances, the prevailing meaning of the wing chair in popular culture reflects our need as consumers to have an easy embodiment of our macabre, off-kilter, libidinous, power-mongering drive.
Charles II, crowned king of England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1660, could be fingered as the wing chair’s progenitor, insofar as he masterminded the cultural circumstances inspiring the wing chair’s invention and necessity. When Charles II came to power, thereby ushering in the Restoration—a period freed from the Puritans’ censorious moral beliefs toward sex and self-indulgence—his parliament ordered dead Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell’s body exhumed from its resting place in Westminster Abbey, posthumously decapitated, and dumped into a mass grave. With Puritanism symbolically dismembered and reburied, the wealthy British populace was finally free to unwind, and needed an appropriate chair in which to do so.
According to Lucy Wood, a senior curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the wing chair’s direct ancestor was a more obdurate and morose bit of furnishing known as the sleeping chayre, or the reposeing chayre. The two stiff colossal side-pieces of the sleeping chayre cloistered the sitter in a kind of opulent coffin, and were attached to the base by iron ratchets that permitted forward and backward adjustments. (The predecessor to the sleeping chayre was the invalid chair. With its leg supports linked by straps, castors, and rods jutting out from the arms to support a reading desk, the invalid chair looks closer to a medieval stretching rack than to an item designed for convalescing.)
The wing chair, first known as the easy chair, had a high back, low seat, sumptuous upholstery, and side-pieces, known as wings, cheeks, or lugs, to protect the sitter from nasty drafts and other distractions. The earliest example of the wing chair—a stiff and sallow descendant of the sleeping chayre—appeared sometime between 1660 and 1680. Around the year 1700, however, a novel shape was introduced: the curve. Since at least the Venus of Willendorf, a figurine dated around 24,000-22,000 BCE, civilization has idealized the female curve. As a symbol of such sensuous stuff, the curve was, unsurprisingly, shunned by the Puritans, people who strove to defeminize what was naturally feminine in women by shrouding them in loose, shape-obscuring smocks. During the Restoration, however, the female form was once again adored and joyfully distorted. Corsetieres were employed to amplify a woman’s breasts and posterior. Whether with a peplum or a pinked-out frill, the backlash against the constraints on sexuality was in full swing, and the wing chair became the libidinous embodiment of the post-Puritan id.