It’s not just for stuffy leather club chairs anymore: In the decorating world, where everything old eventually looks brand-new again, tufting has never been fresher. Consider the hugely popular neo-romantic furniture made by such design-industry darlings as Oly Studio and Jayson Home; the mod tufted sofas inside the Gwyneth Paltrow–fronted Arts Club in London’s Mayfair; or the claret-colored, armless tufted sofa in Bottega Veneta’s fall 2011 ad campaign, shot by famed interiors photographer Robert Polidori at the Palazzo Papadopoli in Venice. (Speaking of Venice, the next time you’re there, catch the vaporetto that ferries tourists to Harry Cipriani: Boasting two long silvery banquettes with tufted backs and sides, it’s probably the chicest ride on earth.)
"Tufting is not nearly as conservative-looking as it was even a decade ago," says Jacqueline Coumans, who owns Le Décor Français, a luxury furnishings and interior design firm, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “It used to make you think of Napoleon III and all that fussy 19th-century furniture, but not anymore.” In the custom pieces she designs for clients, she uses button tufts almost exclusively, although deep tufts created by simple upholstery stitches are another option, in addition to “what the French call bouffettes, which are like the little pompoms in old mattresses.”
Most fabrics are suitable for tufting, Coumans says, but "if you have a beautiful fabric with a lot of detail in the pattern, then you probably don’t want to tuft it." While she loves the look of a tufted striped fabric on a piece, she concedes that “many people think it’s impossible to do. It’s not impossible, actually, but it can be very difficult to get the stripe and the button to line up perfectly.” Whether the tufts appear in a smart grid of rows and columns or a zigzaggy diamond pattern is a matter of choice, but to Coumans, diamonds have a little something extra: “Straight rows and columns of tufts can be boring. A diamond is always more beautiful.” Most important, though, is the piece of furniture itself: “When it comes to tufting, there has to be harmony between the design and shape of the sofa or chair and how you upholster it—you don’t want to have too many things going on.”
The boil-down: Keep it simple. “A tufted piece of furniture needs to be straight-lined rather than curved for the best results, and while stripes can be difficult, you don’t ever want to use a check,” adds Chas Godson, who owns Lennegan & Marantz, a high-end home-furnishings showroom in Southampton, New York. Godson should know: He founded the bespoke London furniture firm George Smith, which almost singlehandedly jump-started the craze for tufted leather Chesterfield sofas in the early 1980s. “Suddenly reproduction Chesterfields were being made by everyone and his dog,” he says.
While tufting undoubtedly serves a logical purpose by keeping upholstery fill in place, Godson believes its origins are purely decorative. “There was a bit of buttoning in Georgian times, but it was the Victorians who really made it de rigueur,” he says. “It just became fashionable, particularly from the 1840s until the 1880s.” Since then it has had periodic bursts of popularity, especially with the 1929 debut of Mies van der Rohe’s iconic Barcelona chair and recent retro-style furniture made by such U.S. manufacturers as Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, Room & Board, and Crate & Barrel, whose button-tufted Petrie sofa is a nod to the early-1960s nest of The Dick Van Dyke Show’s perpetually perky Rob and Laura Petrie.
Half a century later, design blogs clogged with images of the dour and dysfunctional Don and Betty Draper sharing a bed (but very little else) in the hit series Mad Men, their glamorous tufted blue velvet headboard deeply underscoring the psychic and physical distance between them. Almost overnight, it seemed, a North Carolina company called Club Furniture had unveiled a new bed: the Draper.