Tête-à-tête sofa: The Victorian era “love seat”

The tête-à-tête (head-to-head in French) is a two-seat sofa, basically consisting of two chairs joined together. It is also known by several other names including courting chair, vis-à-vis or gossip couch. All the names suggest that its primary use was for private conversations. They could be found inside the house or in the garden.

Developed during the early 19th century in France, the tête-à-tête was popularized in the Victorian era and were common in Victorian Parlors.

 

 

 

 

Courting Chair, Second French Empire, Napoleon III. Photo credit

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Chair “Vis à vis”, Museo Romántico, Madrid. Photo credit

 They were mostly found in larger parlors and often served as a bridge between two sitting areas. The early versions are mostly upholstered and cushioned using the spring coil technique which is also a 19th century invention.

Chair, lacquered wood decorated with marquetry, nineteenth century palace antechamber of the Marquis de Dos Aguas. Photo credit

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American Tête-à-tête; Furniture, ca.1887, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The two chairs were conjoined in a serpentine shape, so the occupants of the sofa faced opposite directions but could easily communicate. The main goal of the design was to allow more intimate conversations without disturbing tables in between. The shared armrest provided a kind of modest barrier between the people (usually a couple) sitting on the sofa, which illustrates the Victorian importance of controlled courtship.

A shining example of the sofa is the one made by a famous American cabinetmaker, John H.Belter, around 1850-1860. Belter’s tête-à-tête embodies the Rococo Revival style and it is characterized by an extravagant use of carved ornamentation, especially flowers. The sofa is on display in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Tête-à-tête, John H. Belter, ca. 1850–60, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The famous Spanish artist Salvador Dali designed a tête-à-tête sofa in the 1930s. He collaborated on several ideas with the famous furniture designer and interior decorator Jean-Michel Frank. Dali made a few sketches for Frank, including one of a S-shaped sofa.

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Dali’s tête-à-tête design features human elements, the armrest in the middle representing a human arm – a male hand with a watch at one end and a female hand with jewelry at the other.

Tête-à-tête, sofa Gala, Salvador Dali. Photo credit

Today, the classic S-shaped tête-à-tête sofa has evolved into so called “love seats“, although modern reproductions of the classics are still made. The modern love seat is a small couch with a large seat and generally doesn’t have the armrest separation in the middle.