Stepping up

Bench-cum-library-steps, at Coughton Court, Warwickshire (inv. no. 135342). ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

In response to the previous post Margaret McAvoy asked how that bench at Coughton Court actually transforms into a set of library steps.

Regency-period 'Patent Metamorphic Library Chair' by Morgan and Saunders (inv. no. 871315) in the Library at Saltram, Devon. ©NTPL/John Hammond

So here you can see how it works: you simply flip it on its side and ascend the little steps inserted between the legs.

The armchair 'metamorphed' into a set of steps. ©NTPL/John Hammond

I have found a few more images of ‘convertible’ library steps.

Chair that converts into steps, in the Library at Penrhyn Castle, Gwynedd, built 1820-1832 by Thomas Hopper for George Hay Dawkins-Pennant. ©NTPL/John Hammond

There seems to be a variety of ways to transform chairs and benches into steps, and it clearly appealed to the cabinetmaker’s ingenuity.

Bench containing a set of library steps, supplied by Thomas Chippendale in 1767-8 for the Library at Nostell Priory, West Yorkshire (inv. no. 959724). ©NTPL/Jonathan Gibson

There are some relatively simple and modest examples, and complicated and grand ones by the likes of Chippendale.

The Nostell Priory library steps unfolded. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

You can do some more browsing for library steps in the National Trust Collections database.

24 Responses to “Stepping up”

  1. arniqueue Says:

    This set is amazing. I’d love to have that patent metamorphic chair! :))

  2. Mark Purcell Says:

    Interestingly, Coughton has no library as such. I wonder if these steps came from another family house: perhaps Molland (Devon) or, more likely, Buckland (Oxfordshire), built for Sir Robert Throckmorton in the eighteenth century.

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Arniqueue, thank you – yes these sets of steps definitely have ‘design gadget appeal’ don’t they?

  4. Susan Walter Says:

    The Coughton steps look a bit flimsy to me – I don’t think I’d be trusting my weight to them. The ‘patent metamorphic’ arrangement appeals to me the most – by far the simplest to operate I would say, and the most solid looking.

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Mark, yes I was wondering why the Coughton steps are in the Blue Drawing Room – thanks for those interesting suggestions at to their provenance.

    Susan, yes it does look a bit dangerous, doesn’t it? One wonders, too, how often these items of convertible furniture were actually used as such. It may have been a bit like electronic gadgets today, which have fancy design features which are hardly ever used…?

  6. Issy Says:

    Fabulous inventions!! :)

  7. The Devoted Classicist Says:

    I had seen examples of metamorphic chairs, but not benches. They are wonderful!

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Issy, Classicist, glad you like these.

  9. Parnassus Says:

    A great study of converting library steps. I really like that beautiful mahogany board on the outside of the Nostell Priory bench, plus the expanded steps have a wonderful architectural quality. The Coughton Court example is extremely elegant as seating furniture, but to use it as steps you would have to expose the finished side, wood and upholstery, to the floor, risking scratches and dirt. The klismos at Saltram manages to look totally different but equally good either way.

    Your post, however, made me wonder why these chairs exist. Saving money could not have been the object, and these rooms are large enough that I doubt that saving space or even decluttering would have been the primary motive. Perhaps hiding the library steps de-emphasized the utilitarian aspect of these rooms, and made them more social spaces? In the same way, a rolling, permanent ladder might signal that the books are of primary importance, and can be accessed at a moment’s notice.

    This is just speculation, but I get the feeling that these steps say more about their owners than just how they furnished their libraries.
    –Road to Parnassus

  10. Mark D. Ruffner Says:

    I like the simplicity of the Coughton Court steps best, though I can see that these would not do well for an obese client. That the upholstery perfectly matches the lattice of the bench’s back isn’t lost on me, either. A beautiful, thoughtful choice!

  11. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Parnassus, that is a perceptive comment. I deliberately didn’t show any of the more straightforward library steps – that is for another post perhaps. But it is indeed puzzling why there was felt to be a need for furniture that deliberately disguised its second identity as library steps.

    Perhaps their sheer ingenuity made them desirable, just like relatively pointless but glamorous gadgets today.

    Or perhaps it is, as you say, that ‘normal’ library steps signalled scholarship and seriousness and donnishnes and so on, which may have been less appropriate in the more sociable households. A nice example of how furniture can tell us – or induce us to ask questions – about social history.

  12. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Mark, yes the Coughton one is strictly for slim and agile book lovers, and would also be rather discouraging to anyone wearing a voluminous skirt :)

    I have a feeling (but no proof as yet) that the side of the upholstery was added in the twentieth century – the sort of ultra-tasteful thing John Fowler might have done.

  13. Margaret McAvoy Says:

    Dear Emile:
    Just this morning, I posted a piece entitled, “Eye Candy”, regarding the Studley Tool Chest. If mine was “candy”, then your post is most certainly “confections”…or “bonbons”..or just plain “yummy”! You are so kind to post the additional photo from Coughton Court, and you were right: I wouldn’t trust them either. But my newest love may just be the armchair at Saltram. The lines on it, as both a chair and as steps, are almost melodic, for lack of a better word. A perfect marriage of aesthetics and function. What a treat to visit this site…keep up the great work!

    With kind regards:
    Margaret McAvoy

    (…and a note to John@Classicist: I unsuccessfully :( tried to post comment on your blog few days ago, but will try again. Love the blog and, while you likely already know this, the photographer for the images above from Coughton Court, Andreas von Eiseidel, has a great set in his portfolio of a Russian dacha, found under the “Features” tab at einseidel.com. Thought that you might enjoy because of your posts regarding same. Thank you for the histories surrounding your subjects: always well-researched! Take care!

  14. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Margaret, how kind of you – and thank you for inspiring me to do this post!

  15. HRH The Duchess of State Says:

    What a divine post dahhling! How very whimsical to have “transforming” chairs & benches! adored.

  16. style court Says:

    Emile, could it be that these pieces are cousins of other fashionable chameleon-like things — concealed doors, furniture with myriad secret compartments etc.? It’s sort of like Jefferson’s ingenuity mashed up with the whimsy so in vogue during the 18th and 19th centuries. I love them, especially the transforming Regency chair.

    Thanks again for your very, very insightful thoughts on perceived male/female qualities in design (re my blog post).

  17. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    HRH, thank you.

    Courtney, yes I think you are right: the cabinetmakers producing these metamorphic steps would also have been making desks with hidden drawers etc. And there does indeed seem to be a kind of Jeffersonian, Enlightenment spirit behind these self-consciously clever objects – and come to think of it they would be especially appropriate in libraries, which were by their very nature devoted to cleverness and self-enlightenment and so on.

  18. style court Says:

    P.S.

    Have you seen the ne plus ultra Argentine library in The World of Interiors, February?

  19. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes that is a wonderful room, isn’t it? It is at once quite cosy and quite grand. And the whole house (San Miguel, owned by the Cárcano family) is a fascinating mixture of French and English, feminine and masculine style: colourful wallpaper on the walls as well as on the ceilings, but also genuine early Georgian paneling; flowery chintzes but also leather upholstery; bare stone interior walls coupled with sheepskins and chintz cushions. And the outside reminds me of Marie-Antoinette’s Hameau, in its deliberate and beautifully constructed rusticity.

  20. CherryPie Says:

    There are some very ingenious ideas there, the last one is particulary interesting. I never have guessed the secret within.

  21. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Susan Odell Walker of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University, has just very kindly sent this link to some interesting convertible library chairs by Augustus Eliaers, dating from the 1850s, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: http://bit.ly/xxX8ac I like it how the proud carved heads attached to the top of the backrests turn into sturdy ‘feet’ when the chairs transform into steps.

    Cherie, thank you – yes trust Chippendale to come up with something clever as well as elegant.

  22. Jolie Beaumont (@JolieBeaumont) Says:

    I’m coming to this discussion rather late, but I was so intrigued by these convertible library chairs that I wanted to learn more – and more there is in this thesis by Clive Taylor devoted to the subject, which includes illustrations. It seems that concerns about safety raised in this forum were raised in the Regency era, as well, but the desire for novelty was stronger.

    Mr. Taylor also raises the interesting point that the fad for mechanical furniture might have been influenced by the military campaigns of the period. An officer would have wanted to have his creature comforts while on a military campaign, and so furniture designers were busy figuring out ways to make furniture portable. That expertise was then used back home, in the libraries and drawing rooms of the country houses. Here is the link to the thesis: http://parboldantiques.com/PDFs/Library.pdf

  23. Margaret McAvoy Says:

    How interesting, @JolieBeaumont! What fun conversations I’ve discovered from these posts, and the incredible insight that readers contribute! I downloaded Mr. Taylor’s thesis and it looks like fun reading, to be sure! Unfortunately, I couldn’t access your website, nor parboldantiques.com, but then again, my Mac is archaic and rather temperamental. I’ll be sure to try again a bit later, but thanks for so much great information!

  24. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Jolie, thank you very much indeed for that link to Clive Taylor’s fascinating paper. I will check whether our Libraries Curator and our Furniture Curator are aware of it. Indeed (as Margaret says) a very useful contribution to the discussion about this topic.

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