A sofa is a sociable piece of furniture. Two-seater or three-seater, it carries an inbuilt expectation that you're prepared to share the space... and the company. A sofa is ideal for chatting or watching television, but less good for reading or contemplating the mysteries of the universe. It's all too easy for someone to get your attention.
It's not that I'm antisocial, but sometimes I want a bit more protection from a chair. That's where the wingback comes in. With a high back and 'wings' that wrap around the sitter, to a greater or lesser extent, it allows you to turn your back on the world. If a wingback chair could speak, it would say: "I do not want to be interrupted."
A wingback chair adds gravitas. In The Matrix (1999), when Morpheus and Neo sit down to discuss the nature of the matrix itself, they sit in red leather wingback chairs. The design (fusty but comfortable) was instantly elevated to a sci-fi icon. Laurence Fishburne made torn red leather and button back upholstery look cool.
It's not the first time a wingback has appeared in science fiction. Arne Jacobsen's Egg chair, designed in 1958 and still going strong, featured in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The Egg chair, by the way, is not the one that actually looks like an egg and hangs from the ceiling - same name, different chair. Instead, Jacobsen's Egg is a modernist riff on the wingback theme with stylised wings that are continuous with its curved back.
This was also the chair of choice for Jacobim Mugatu, evil fashion mogul in Zoolander (2001). The Ovalia Egg Chair, designed by Henrik Thor-Larsen in 1968, was used in Men In Black (1997), while Dr Evil of Austin Powers (1997) had a wingback chair based on Hans Wegner's 1960 ox chair. The chair, with 'wings' that resemble the horns of an ox, was apparently inspired by Picasso. It's a good example of Dr Evil's continual failure to be a truly evil villain. My own world domination plans involve Model 2204, a wingback designed by Borge Mogenson in 1962. It costs €7,860 from Lost Weekend. I'm still scheming…
Back in the real world, the wingback chair was designed to keep out drafts. In the days before central heating you could angle the chair towards the fireplace to maximise the heat of the fire and minimise the chill of the room.
Now, people tend to use them as corner chairs, often combined with a foot stool. In many cases, the traditional designs are still the most popular. Ikea's Strandmon wing chair (€220 from www.ikea.com/ie/en/) is more or less unchanged since 1951.
Finline Furniture has been making wing-backed Queen Anne chairs in Emo, Co Laois since 1979. "It's a chair that can move with you," says Ciarán Finane of Finline Furniture. "It's smaller and narrower than most easy chairs, it can go in a bedroom or a hall, and you can bring it back in ten years and have it upholstered in a different fabric."
With a solid beech frame, prices for the Queen Anne chair range from €550 t0 €996, depending on the fabric (www.finlinefurniture.ie).
Finane finds that some of his customers liven up traditional forms by mixing and matching the upholstery with one fabric on the back, another on the arms, and a third on the cushion. Taking this a step further, you can buy chairs upholstered in patchwork-print, like the Kiki (€455 from www.dfs.ie), which combines a fairly classic shape with a funky fabric.
Another option is to buy a vintage chair upholstered in real patchwork from www.kellyswallow.com. These are a fine thing altogether, but lot of work goes into making them, so don't expect much change from €2,000. Plus transport from the UK.
If this is all too much excitement, you could go for plain black, and let the rest of the room work a bit harder. "One of our most popular wingbacks is a French-style model called Rosalie," says Jenny Hurren of the UK-based Out There Interiors. "It's a very dominating piece of furniture in black velvet with a mahogany frame. I'd suggest that you use it as a standalone piece, offset with reflective surfaces to break up the light and some bright cushions." Rosalie costs €993.
"French-style wingbacks with gilded frames look lovely in traditional interiors, which is where they're technically supposed to be," adds Hurren. "But they also work nicely with modern stuff. I'd combine a gold chair with dark walls and something in hot pink to set everything against each other. I always avoid white walls - they tend to put everything on show and highlight the differences between them. Dark walls bring things together."
Traditional and contemporary furniture work well in tandem, but only to a point. "There are rules that you have to follow if you want it to look perfectly random," she explains. "I don't think a French-style wingback would look great in a Scandinavian style interior."
A modern version of the wingback, like the Havana wing chair by Softline (€1,050 from www.minimafurniture.co.uk) will go with pretty much any interior. So will a 20th century classic like Jacobsen's Egg chair.
Hurren suggests combining this with glass and bronze Cerelia candle sticks (from €104 for a pair), a giant floor-standing Gianara candle stick (€325); Veronique mirrored side table (€293); Wahalla white beaded chandelier made with wooden beads (€923). All these are available from www.outthereinteriors.com, as well as an Egg-style chair from €481.
But do be aware that a chair that mimics the look of Jacobsen's design won't be of the same quality as an authorised reproduction, which would set you back around €6,000 from www.lostweekend.ie.