In 1828, the coiled upholstery spring was patented—and living rooms worldwide would never be the same. To accommodate the springs, cushions got deeper, and craftspeople came up with clever ways to cover them. As a result, Victorian parlors were invaded by lush, overstuffed upholstery in many forms, from chaise to chair to couch. Instead of a stiff, formal place, it became one where family and friends relaxed and visited. During this time, a classic silhouette emerged; eventually coming to be called the Bridgewater, it remains relevant to this day.
The Bridgewater has been known by other names—it’s also called an English or club sofa or chair—but you’ll recognize it by its high back and low, wide-open arms, which give it an invitingly casual look. The sprawling couches look country-house comfortable, at home with hunting dogs out of a Stubbs painting and a row of Wellies in the mudroom. And the chairs, with their laid-back arms, feel just right in a tight city apartment. The seat cushions can be downy to varying degrees, and the back could be tight or have loose cushions. It has slender, turned wooden legs on casters that sometimes hide under a skirt.
Howard and Sons, the revered London maker of upholstered furniture dating to Victorian times, made the first Bridgewater model in the 1820s. Antiques dealers sell original Howard sofas (with the then-revolutionary, patented spring design) for a killing today. But this company crafted its sofas and chairs with such Rolls Royce-like precision, (i.e., slow), that another British furniture manufacturer, George Smith, swooped in and started making them quicker. This version, called the Standard, is still made today; it was particularly popular in 1980s America when covered in wool kilim carpet. George Sherlock, founded in London in the 1960s, makes an extended two-seater, which the company describes as a “deep traditional sofa.” Sherlock’s first chairs were covered in muslin or calico, which clients re-cover or slipcover at will. Their ‘80s-era ads with a fuchsia muslin sofa made an impression in the U.S. (we at Gilt Home are permanently smitten with it).
The Bridgewater in any form is the epitome of shabby chic in the true British sense of the word: shabby because it’s so comfy it ends up being well-used, and chic because it exhibits a certain unapologetic ‘tude. But the Bridgewater’s look can be taken in many directions; it’s a true design chameleon. Pick an ebullient floral fabric, and you’re having tea with the Queen Mum in matching cardigans. Choose a sandy brown or gray, and it perfectly complements traditional, transitional and even contemporary spaces. And go taxicab yellow like J. Crew creative director and president Jenna Lyons did, and, well, bloggers and editors will erupt into verbal applause, as they did over her living room—anchored by what looks to be a sunny George Sherlock double-wide—when it appeared in Living Etc. and domino.
But however you specify yours, when you sit, you’ll notice another unmistakable hallmark of the Bridgewater: The back tilts slightly, leaving you with no alternative but to relax and sink back. Don’t try to fight it; it’s better just to give in.
(Photo by Simon Watson/trunkarchive.com)