x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Sitting pretty: Ottoman moments down the ages

Design origins From humble footstool to stylish design statement, this traditional piece of furniture has come a long way.

Lounge Chair and Ottoman (1956) designed by Charles and Ray Eames.
Lounge Chair and Ottoman (1956) designed by Charles and Ray Eames.

It is hardly surprising that the word ottoman has survived for at least 200 years as an alternative and far more exotic term for a padded and upholstered footstool. It's the furniture equivalent of suggesting going for a spin in the Rolls, as opposed to merely the car. The term undoubtedly comes from the Ottoman Empire which, at its height in the 16th and 17th centuries, stretched from Turkey and the Balkan states to Egypt and parts of modern-day Kuwait and Saudi Arabia - and there is evidence to show that it refers to a style of sitting favoured by the Ottomans themselves. This position involved reclining on a chair or possibly a divan (another furniture item with Arabian design origins) with their feet propped up on a stool.

For the stool to be usable and comfortable it needed to be the right height and relatively soft so it was covered with fabric - which is where the main design elements kicked in. Europeans visiting - and invading - territories in the Ottoman Empire in the late 17th century discovered the stools, quickly appreciated their design and practicality and began introducing them to households back home. This Near Eastern design was certainly not the first footstool the world had seen - there are early models dating back more than 5,000 years to Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia - but it was the first footstool to be called an ottoman.

The design evolution of the ottoman has involved many different looks, including circles and octagons, some with arms or central columns against which to lean, but today's classic ottoman shape has changed very little from the first models brought back to Europe: a bulky square (or squarish) shape, usually upholstered in fabric and often matching other pieces of furniture. Some bright spark also worked out that they could be hollow, thereby providing a secret storage space for blankets, board games and other occasional items.

Designing the ottoman must have been quite a challenge as there really isn't much scope for expression in something so traditionally blocky, so, in many ways, ottomans have provided a means of separating leading furniture designers from the also-rans. The US designer darlings Charles and Ray Eames were at the very front of this field and gave the world one of the most attractive and stylish examples as part of their Lounge Chair and Ottoman set in 1956 (No 670 and 671 to be precise), originally made by the Herman Miller Furniture Company of Michigan, using aluminium, leather and a rosewood veneer. The model quickly became a design classic and has remained so for the past half-century.

Another persistently popular design is the ottoman designed by Mies van der Rohe that accompanied his steel and leather Barcelona Chair, first designed for the German Pavilion at the World's Fair of 1929. Both of these classics are still being made but you may need to arrange a small mortgage to get hold of one that is produced by one of the licensed manufacturers. If you are willing to settle for something less famous but still well designed then check out the cute cream leather ottoman by B&B Italia (Dh7,950) at Atmosphere in Abu Dhabi's Khalidiya neighbourhood. Purists may argue that this is a pouffe rather than an ottoman but it's a beautiful addition to your home, so who cares. If you are really splashing the cash there's a gorgeous matching chair for Dh19,900.

Those with space issues might want to go even smaller and get their hands on one of two baby ottomans by the Dutch design house Moooi - both are quite solid and made from dark cork with one taller and slimmer and the other shorter and fatter (available at Atmosphere for Dh1,800 a piece). As a less pricey alternative, for Dh1,395 at The One you can pick up Tiesto, which is a part-leather ottoman in white and would not look out of place in the lobby or penthouse suite of a swanky Miami Beach Art Deco hotel.

Ikea stocks a wide range of ottomans ranging from the basic fabric-covered Klippan with storage inside (Dh225) to the fun and rustic Ikea Stockholm pouffe (yes, that is the name of the higher quality range it is part of, and not the branch where it is sold), an attractive cowhide-covered piece for Dh995. BoConcept in Mall of the Emirates has a stylish jet-black Alpha ottoman in fabric or leather (from Dh2,999) that resembles an oversized piece from a draughtboard (checkerboard if you are from North America). The store also has an ottoman that unfolds into an emergency single bed (from Dh1,810), which is perfect for smaller spaces and unexpected guests.

Now, after all that running around, it's time for a cup of mint tea and an ottoman moment.