Pull up a chair, relax...
Finding the right armchair can be as tricky as buying a pair of shoes - and they can, surprisingly, cost an arm and a leg unless you're prepared to buy second-hand
The quest for an armchair has my head melted. When did it get to be so difficult? The last time I bought one was almost 20 years ago. I walked in to Habitat on St Stephen's Green, bought a matching sofa and armchair, and they were delivered a few weeks later. The sofa predeceased the armchair but we got good mileage out of both of them. I'd go for the same again, if I could, but a lot of things have changed in 20 years.
Habitat is gone, of course, its Irish shops swept away by the recession in 2008. What's more, the notion of buying your living room furniture as a matching set is pretty much out the window. "Twenty years ago, when anyone bought anything it was a three-piece suite," says Lorraine Stevens of Lomi Design. "You ended up with an armchair that was a scaled-down version of the sofa."
I have to confess an abiding love for things that match, but it isn't very fashionable. Now, it's trendy to buy your sofa and armchair in different styles, preferably from different shops. A mismatching aesthetic makes a room look creative and interesting, but there's also a practical element to the trend. As Stevens explains, the armchair from a suite isn't always the best option for contemporary homes. "Most apartments and open-plan living areas are better suited to an L-shaped sofa, which helps to zone the space, with an accent chair."
Like most people, I'm doing the preliminary shopping online. Obsessively. The algorithms are wise to it by now with random armchairs appearing like popcorn in the Gmail sidebar. I'm finding it hard to get a sense of scale. "Measure out a newspaper and put it on the floor," Stevens advises. "Leave it there for a few days and see if you can live with it. If you find yourself stepping over it, it's probably too big for the room."
Our armchair is square and fits snugly into an alcove just over a metre wide, but Stevens suggests that a round-backed armchair might look better. "Sometimes a piece of furniture needs a bit of space around it," she says. "Do you really want the room to look as though it's jammed full of jellybeans?"
Rather than buy a chair that slots into the available nook, she recommends something smaller and lighter on its feet. Lomi's Nikos armchair (from €1,858) has slender metal legs. Because you can see underneath it, there's a greater sense of visual space around the chair than you'd get with one that goes down almost to the ground. If that's too expensive, the Frame armchair from Made (around €569) is a perfectly acceptable alternative. Michael Murphy Furniture has a very similar looking chair also called the Frame (€565). These are fine looking chairs but none of them, to my mind, look like somewhere that you'd want to spend the afternoon reading a book.
It's important to know exactly what you want from an armchair and I need something that I can curl up on. It doesn't have to look stylish - the existing one certainly doesn't - but it needs to look inviting. And, because I like to be able to rest a cup of tea on the arm of the chair, I prefer it to have square arms. There's a trend for sculpted arms that curve outwards like the flippers of a seal. It's a nice look, but try balancing your cup of tea on those elegant curves… Disaster.
Finding the right armchair can be as tricky as buying a pair of shoes. "There's an armchair out there for everyone," Stevens says. "But it can be hard to find one that fits. Some people like a small, neat armchair that grabs them around the sides and makes them feel supported. And then there's the height of the back. Do you want a high-backed chair or a low-backed one?" The solution is to sit on it and see, so take your shoes off and make yourself comfortable. "We see people coming into the showroom and their bum barely touches the chair before they've made their decision. I always tell them that they have to sit on it properly. You have to put aside all your inhibitions about being seen lounging around on an armchair in public."
Then, there's the price. With armchairs you tend to get what you pay for. Good quality furniture costs more but it will repay you with years of use. If money were no object, I would be tempted by the Tirella armchair, designed by Paolo Grasselli for Bonaldo. It's a low lying beast of a chair with slim metal legs and a massive base cushion - but the detail is in the arms and the back which are made to look as though cushions have been casually slung over the surrounding frame. Even cooler, you can order the cushions in different colours. The catch is the cost. Prices from Lomi in plain fabric start at €3,383 and at €3,555 for multi-coloured fabric. That's an additional €172 for colour options but probably worth it. Might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb at that price.
Whatever your price range, armchairs are more expensive than you'd think. I'd naively imagined that you could calculate the cost of an armchair by taking the price of a three-seater sofa and dividing it by three. Not a bit of it! At the accessible end of the scale, the Alex armchair from Michael Murphy Home Furnishing costs €349. A two-seater sofa in the same range is €449 and a three-seater is €635. Slightly upmarket, the Zinc armchair from DFS costs €779, while the equivalent two-seater and three-seater sofas cost €1,129 each.
"People are often unprepared for the cost of an armchair because they think of it as a smaller item," Stevens explains. "It does look quite expensive in terms of what you're getting, but there's the same amount of assembly in an armchair as there is in a sofa." So that explains the price.
Armchairs are expensive and there's no getting around it, unless you're prepared to buy second-hand. Here, there are bargains. In my area, the weekly auction at Herman & Wilkinson in Rathmines and Oxfam Home on Francis Street both have decent quality armchairs for less than €50. The aesthetic is mixed and so far I haven't seen anything that I could live with, but the trick to buying second-hand furniture is patience. The perfect armchair is out there somewhere!
See lomi.ie, dfs.ie, made.com, michaelmurphy.ie, hermanwilkinson.ie, and oxfamireland.org