Art, Architecture, Design & Travel

Chaise Lounge or The Day Bed : The Story of Rest and Relaxation

The Story of Rest and Relaxation: The Development of the Daybed, from Ancient Egypt to Today

The daybed is a bit of a novelty in modern households—perhaps superfluous with present-day amenities, manners, and recliners. But it wasn’t always so. On the contrary, the highly functional daybed was a pivotal evolution in seating furniture, with roots in history that run as deep as the chair.

Before pressing on into the daybed’s story of rest and repose, a quick look at terminology is helpful for avoiding confusion about what’s what. There’s often a loose distinction between sofas, settees, daybeds and couches, but here’s a helpful tip: if the settee evolved from the armchair, with slender legs and chair-like arms, the sofa, with its long frame and sturdy supports, evolved from the daybed.

But the daybed’s significance goes further than that.

Suggesting a posture somewhere between sitting up and lying down—outside of the bedroom—the daybed was a completely unique addition to the roster of modern domestic furniture when French craftsmen created it for their aristocratic customers around the 16th century. Known as a “chaise longue” in France (a long chair), a “daybed” in England, and a “couch” in America (derived from the French verb coucher, meaning to lie down), these luxurious, stylish versions weren’t actually the first daybeds in history.

Ancient Daybeds: Egypt, Greece & Rome

As with most modern furniture, the daybed was alive in well in Ancient Egypt and Ancient Rome. It provided a spot to rest, eat, or do almost anything, in repose. In Egypt, chaises longues were used for resting in the hot desert climate, and more elaborate versions for burial. For Egyptians, the bed was the most important piece of furniture behind the chair, so this in-between piece identifies a bit of ingenuity on the part of the Egyptians. Seen in hieroglyphics, these daybeds were crafted from simple, rectangular wood frames, with interwoven strips of fabric like a mattress.

In ancient Greece and Rome, reclining was a totally acceptable (if not solemn) posture in social settings, so the presence of the daybed seems pretty natural. In Greece, even meals were taken lying down, propped up on one elbow on a u-shaped triclinium (couches surrounding a central table). In Rome, the daybed was perhaps the most important piece of furniture, used in bedrooms, libraries, and dining rooms. Called a lectus, this long wooden seat was fitted with one high side, like a headboard, stacked with pillows and criss-crossed with leather straps to support a rush- or horsehair-stuffed mattress. This lounging bed was used for reading, writing, eating, and lively discussion, and sometimes had two sides and a back—a precursor to the couch.

The Chinese Platform Bed: Social Seating for the Upper Classes

In China, starting around 206 BC, platforms were the most important form of seating—as important as chairs, especially for social situations. They echoed the elegant, horizontal lines of Chinese architecture, and complemented the formal arrangements of furniture dictated by feng shui. Elevated seating was crucial: in a culture where almost everyone was seated at floor level, it was a big distinction. By the end of the 9th century, Chinese platforms had evolved from box-like structures to having legs, opening up artistic possibilities: decorative openings (kunmen) with scalloped edges, carved aprons, and carved feet.

The platform bed (chuangs) was used for sitting, sleeping, scholarly pursuits, or as work surfaces. Often, when two or more people lounged on one, a small table was set between them on the daybed for eating or playing games. Daybeds (ta) were mainstays in aristocrats’ entrance halls, bedrooms, and studies, where scholars would stack books on them, lounge while reading or examining antiques, or pull them outside for relaxing in the exquisite courtyard gardens. Read more about Chinese couch beds of the Ming Dynasty.

Daybeds in France, England & America

In the Gothic period, long chests with high sides on either end called “archebanc-couchettes” were often used as “rest beds”—more precursors to chaises longues and daybeds. By the late 15th century, rooms and homes were changing, as were manners. French furniture makers were catering to the more relaxed manners of their customers. They created variations on sofas meant for lounging, and elongated chairs to accommodate a reclining posture—something now suitable in rooms meant for greeting guests. In the 18th century, this basic form would be re-imagined into the French duchesse, a combination bergère-and-ottoman that offered a more refined, bed-like comfort.

In the Carolean period in 1600s England—which produced the iconic caned chairs with elaborately carved backs and crests—the daybed (or “couch,” in America) became a more important piece of furniture in the home. Its birth marked a very clear differentiation between sleeping quarters and living quarters. These daybeds were extremely elaborate, like their chair cousins, with similar backs and legs, paw feet and caned seats, but an unusually elastic silhouette: the seats were stretched out, with an elaborate framework of carved legs and florid stretchers. The caned seats were fitted with a cushion, and some featured adjustable backs for reclining.

Furnishings were becoming a work of art, and daybeds were great canvases.

The William & Mary period in England, after the festive Flemish-influenced Carolean period, brought about a beautiful cleanliness in the lines of furniture. William & Mary-styled versions of daybeds reflected this shift, with straight backs and Baroque-style legs and stretchers.

When the curves of Queen Anne style chairs took over, daybeds again echoed this shift,with graceful cabriole legs and the new open, cyma-curved back splats seen on the iconic walnut side chairs (seen at left).

Meanwhile, in France, where the Rococo daybed gained popularity in formal salons, Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI styles churned out gorgeous giltwood, upholstered versions. With lounging becoming an increasingly popular way to while away hours, they were everywhere, and who better to imagine doing so while drinking champagne than Marie Antoinette?

By the 18th century, daybeds as elongated chairs somewhat dropped off the radar, but when they resurfaced, they were more commonly referred to as chaises longues. Chaises longues were principally developed under Louis XIV, and evolved into a variety of revival styles, from Chippendale’s Rococo to Neoclassical, to Empire style.

Regency and Empire styles took more than just aesthetic inspiration from the classics—they also borrowed the behaviors of ancient Greece and Rome. People were completely fascinated with classical antiquity, and this passion inspired a mimicry of ancient customs and manners. If new research indicated the Greeks enjoyed arguing and discussing things while reclining, Regency-era furniture makers followed suit, creating chaises longues with scrolled ends, elaborate carving, and classical detailing. A specific, new type of chaise evolved based on an ancient Grecian classic, with one end slightly higher than the other: the récamier—-named for a portrait of the lounging Madame Récamier painted by the French artist David in 1800.

If you tend to associate the chaise longue with more feminine leanings, you’d be correct! In the 1800s, women were growing more liberated, with more forward-thinking ideas and a newfound tendency to view themselves as the masters of the domicile. In which case, chaises longues and sofas were their thrones!

In America, elongated chair daybeds flowed along with the popular styles, peaking with the Federal style Grecian couch that resembled the French récamier. It was used more as a daybed, for reclining, than a couch, and its classical styling suited the United States in its new role as a budding republic—shedding Rococo style and adopting motifs of the Roman Republic. Duncan Phyfe created beautiful Empire-style daybeds and meridiennes.

In the Victorian era, famed bentwood inventor Michael Thonet‘s shop created a restbed rocker in his line of bentwood pieces. John Henry Belter and others created tufted, overstuffed Rococo revival chaise longues and meridiennes with laminated, carved rosewood crests that were pieces of elaborate “parlor sets.” Coil springs and Turkish-style cushions made these extravagant luxuries in the parlors of the well-to-do.

Today, chaises longues have maintained their luxurious aura, or grown into more utilitarian roles as outdoor lounge furniture, or dynamic parts of sectional sofas.

No matter how they’re used or interpreted, these lovely, sinuous pieces of furniture serve as reminders of a more genteel time when one was expected to pause, catch his breath, and look fabulous doing so—a relic of relaxation in a busy world.

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