Wednesday 13 December 2017

Are you too cool for footstools?

Ottoman, footstool or pouffe... put your feet up in style with elegant occasional furniture

Yellow pouffes from MDF Italia
Yellow pouffes from MDF Italia
Hedonist black velvet ottoman from the French Bedroom Company;
Floralism Moonlight velvet stool
The Roche Bobois Profile ottoman
DFS ottoman

There's nothing romantic about a footstool. It's probably the least glamorous piece of furniture in the living room. I blame the name. Footstool conjures an image of unfortunate people with tired legs, bunions and varicose veins. An ottoman, in contrast, sounds full of Eastern promise. That's an exotic piece of furniture! It may look like a footstool. It may function like a footstool. It may even be a footstool. But calling it an ottoman makes it sound vaguely Oriental and very much classier.

There are several versions of the story about how the ottoman got its name. Apparently Napoleon's footsore soldiers enjoyed the comfort of ottomans while on campaign in Egypt and indeed the first European reference to 'Ottomanes' is French but from the 1730s - long before Bonaparte's time. They were likely introduced into Europe from Turkey in the 18th century.

Historically, ottomans came in all shapes and sizes. The 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica described the ottoman as "a form of couch which usually has a head but no back, though sometimes it has neither … In the course of a generation it made its way into every boudoir, but it appears originally to have been much larger than at present." The word ottoman was "also applied to a small foot-stool covered with carpet, embroidery or beadwork". By the mid-20th century, the latter definition had become dominant. Ottomans and footstools were one and the same.

Now, that versatile piece of furniture is undergoing a bit of a revival. "It's really very funny to see how important ottomans have become," says Nicolas Roche, creative director of Roche Bobois. Interestingly, as they have come back into fashion, the notion of what an ottoman is has expanded.

Hedonist black velvet ottoman from the French Bedroom Company;
Hedonist black velvet ottoman from the French Bedroom Company;

"For me, an ottoman might be a very small thing, or it might be two metres long," Roche explains. "Sometimes it is a very small upholstered element that you can co-ordinate with your sofa." It can also be a sizeable piece of furniture. Roche Bobois' Littoral range includes a rectangular ottoman (€1,900). It's the size and shape of a sofa, but without the arms and back.

Roche Bobois is a high-end brand and prices for ottomans range from €475 for a little Bipod (ex-display, pictured below) to €2,430 for the cool-looking Macaron (a concave disc in the seat transforms into the back of a seat). For Roche, a sofa-plus-ottoman arrangement offers more variation than a large sofa with a fixed form. In Roche Bobois's recent designs, the massive corner sofa is broken down into a cluster of affiliated items. "People want new shapes with sofas. They want little pieces - accessories and side tables. It's about not having the sofa as a fixed piece but as a programme that you can compose. The ottoman is one of the components."

These moveable furniture clusters can be reconfigured to suit a range of sofa-based activities. "People are fond of flexibility and the ottoman is an expression of the mobility that they want," Roche concludes. "They want to eat on the sofa, they want to work on the sofa…"

Alison Hill, creative director of the sofa company DFS, has been quoted on her plans to establish an Ottoman Empire (by which she means a world populated by low-legged items of upholstered furniture). "I've used the phrase to describe a multitude of stool-like things," she explains. "Ottoman is a broad term." In general, she defines an ottoman as an independent piece of furniture, usually rectangular, and typically on legs. "I think they're an underutilised asset. There should be no home without one!" DFS ottomans range from the deep-buttoned Bailey (€819, pictured above) to the Truth storage footstool (€249).

This year's Milan Furniture Fair showed the rise of the ottoman, in all its shapes and sizes. "Some were much more elegant than footstools," Hill explains. "They're created from coffee-table technology but with upholstered tops." The most extravagant combined metalwork plinths in bronze or gold, upholstered with sheepskin.

The ottoman, in general, is a mongrel breed. Some seem to be descended from the coffee table. These range from the large round Harry ottoman by B&B Italia (€2,385-€4,080 from Minima) to Marks & Spencer's deep-buttoned oblong Dezra (€395-€849). Others, like the Hedonistic black velvet ottoman (€325, pictured above) from the French Bedroom Company have storage chests in their ancestry.

Floralism Moonlight velvet stool
Floralism Moonlight velvet stool

"My first preference is for an ottoman as a stand-alone thing that's not trying to do a storage job," says Hill. "We have one at the end of the bed." She recommends that you measure carefully before you invest. "Get a piece of newspaper and cut it to the size of the ottoman that you want to buy. Then put it on the floor. Can you walk around it? Do you have room for your chairs? Despite all the digital devices that will enable you to see how a piece of furniture looks in your room, there's nothing like actually placing a piece of newspaper on the floor!"

The best height for an ottoman, if you plan to use it as a side table, is level with the top of the seat cushion of your sofa. "If I'm using an ottoman in a tray situation, I'd prefer it to have a flat or deep-buttoned top. I'd expect the surface to stay taut," Hill explains. A round, squishy ottoman can be treacherous for trays. It's probably a pouffe in disguise.

For everyone who wants to envisage the ottoman as a coffee table, side table or storage unit, there will be plenty of traditionalists who just want to put their feet up. Philippe Nigro's design for the Manarola chair (2016) is based on the all-foam seating of the 1970s. It's squashy-looking, strangely elegant and - guess what - comes with an ottoman of its very own. The Manarola chair costs €2,318 and the footstool €1,008 from Arena Kitchens, Ligne Roset's Irish supplier.

One of my favourite ottoman arrangements is the witty Slice armchair, recently reissued by Ligne Roset. The Slice (from €2,415) was designed by Pierre Charpin in 1996 (the ottoman looks like an extra slice of chair.) The ensemble resembles the Very Hungry Caterpillar. If you had the space, and the money, you could add as many slices as you want.


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