When is it right to show a bit of leg? (In your sofa covering, of course)

A new generation of upholstery is elegant, comfortable and doesn’t reveal too much leg, says Giles Kime.

The story that the Victorians draped chair legs to protect their modesty is thought to have its roots in an anti-American quip in Captain Marryat’s A Diary In America, which he wrote in the 1830s. The anecdote reflected his view that there was a great deal of prudishness over the pond. Although the Victorians did have a curious habit of draping almost anything with fabric or lace, there’s no evidence of the chair-leg practice in either Britain or the US.

In the 20th century, however, hiding the legs of sofas and chairs became a solution to the problem of too much legginess in a scheme. Stylistically, there were two divergent paths: the gathered look that was a key ingredient in English country-house style and the sleeker, more tailored approach employed by designers such as Billy Baldwin and David Hicks.

‘It’s transformative, especially in a room with lots of legs on cabinets, chairs and tables, creating a softer, more relaxed look,’ says Lulu Lytle, co-founder of Soane Britain, which sells the skirted Tuileries sofa.

The Tuileries sofa.

The aim is not to eradicate every exposed legs (particularly not those that are aesthetically pleasing), but simply to create a sense of balance, as well as to obscure any ungainly pieces. Recently, the sleeker approach has been employed to create simple, tailored designs that, depending on the fabric in which they are covered, can look at home in either a classic or a contemporary context.

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Neptune has demonstrated the pared-back possibilities of this approach with its Charlie sofa. More recently, interior designers Bunny Turner and Emma Pocock have created a range of crisply defined upholstery made by the contemporary arm of Lorfords, antique dealers in Tetbury, Gloucestershire.

Using the principles of good tailoring, the designers have succeeded in simplifying shapes and manipulating proportions with a deep, structured skirt and a single seat cushion, instead of the traditional two. ‘Both the skirt and the seat offered an opportunity to play with proportion and scale,’ says Bunny.

The result is a choice of comfortable designs with a sleek elongated appearance that, depending on the choice of fabric, would sit happily in either a classic or a contemporary setting.