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Dabbling in antiques is tongue-twisting business, especially when dealing with the canapé. When discussing hors d’œuvres, a canapé is something The Barefoot Contessa might serve at a French soirée. But in the antiques world, a canapé is an antique sofa perfect for perching on while holding a napkin filled with something salty and sipping une coupe de Champagne.
Technically, the French canapé is any piece of furniture similar to a couch or settee , but canapé is best used to describe an antique oh-so-elegant sofa with an upholstered seat, delicate wooden legs and arms straight out of a later King Louis period. It differs from a divan, which tends to be more mattress-like and perfect for reclining while reading un livre. While a canapé has many purposes, relaxing isn’t one of them. The canapé is the French solution for Round Table discussions sans la table or when polite society gathers for Randianesque discussions dans le salon.
There is always the chaise longue for times when one wants to go solo with their deep thoughts, but why sit alone when the curvy méridienne looks like the chaise longue but is wide enough for two? Named for the time of day when the sun is near the meridian, this long chair is often referred to as a “Fainting Couch” because ladies wearing tight corsets would literally collapse onto it, faint of breath, though its double-width long seat perfect for canoodling makes one wonder if perhaps another sort of swooning was going on?
Canapé indiscret and Canapé en confident
All this leads us to ponder: can a simple sofa be romantic? Yes, when we’re talking about a canapé de l’amitié, essentially two chairs pushed together and connected with a long bench in between that allowed stimulated young lovers to sit close together on the same sofa while never going so far as to actually touch. And while that sounds titillatingly romantic, the canapé indiscret seems downright naughty as it was built for a ménage à trois. Get your mind out of the gouttière—it was built for a three-way conversation, but its nomenclature indiscret owes tribute to those indiscreet gossips who used this seat for eavesdropping on conversations between others!
Three friends who want to have a private conversation should choose a canapé en confident, a three-person sofa built for—you guessed it—confidential conversations.
Tête-à-tête, Dos-à-dos and Duchesse brisée
The indiscret is often erroneously called a tête-à-tête, but the tête-à-tête was built for more intimate conversations and is nothing more than a pair of chairs fused in serpentine fashion so those seated on it could literally put their heads together and gaze longingly into each other’s eyes.
The opposite of the tête-à-tête is the dos-à-dos, used by lovers to sit back-to-back. These seats were often set up in public places such as theater lobbies and were the ideal rendez-vous point for secret lovers to discreetly pass a note or clasp hands without drawing attention of the watchful public eye.
Those who made it past the bedroom doors became fans of a duchesse brisée, a cross between a canapé and bergère, essentially two upholstered chairs put together and connected in the middle with an ottoman between them. Lovers curled up together on a duchesse brisée for long conversations face-to-face with their toes entwined!
When we’re talking French sofas and seats—whether the duchesse brisée, the dos-à-dos, tête-à-tête, canapé en confident or the simple canapé—the moral of this story is grab a friend—or two—because when it comes to French antique furniture, the more guests invited, the merrier!
Toma Clark Haines is The Antiques Diva™ Chief Executive Diva of The Antiques Diva & Co® European Shopping Tours offering antique shopping tours in France, England, Italy, Belgium, Holland and Germany. Please click on her name to read her professional profile and more of her stories published in BonjourParis.