Tête-à-Têtes: The Answer to Awkward Conversation?

published Apr 28, 2017
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In the inaugural episode of this last season of “The Bachelor”, Nick Viall admitted, as he settled down for a one-on-one conversation with a lady at the evening’s cocktail party, that he did not know how to sit sideways on a couch. The internet, doing what the internet does best, exploded in mockery. GROWN MAN DOES NOT KNOW HOW TO SIT ON SOFA, the headlines gleefully trumpeted. Okay, not really, but a lot of fun was made. Look: Not knowing how to sit sideways on a couch is dumb. But all this well-deserved mockery is obscuring an important point, which is this: if you’re going to have a conversation with someone, a traditional sofa probably isn’t the best place to do it.

(Image credit: The Bachelor)

A sofa, like a bench, of which it is a type, forces those sitting upon it to face in the same direction, unless they make a great deal of effort to do otherwise. Sitting on a sofa perfectly positions you to watch television with someone, but to have a conversation, you must both turn 90 degrees, so that one of your arms is resting on the back of the sofa and one of your legs is (perhaps) curled up somehow on the seat. There’s a sense that you’re working against the original intent of the sofa, which, in fact, you are.

If conversation is your primary object, you want to be sitting across from someone, not next to them. Designers have been trying to solve this problem for centuries, creating pieces of furniture designed specifically for conversation (and for kissing, another activity in which it is most desirable to be face-to-face). Let’s take a look at some notable styles—and at some modern examples that you can buy for your own home.

The tête-à-tête (or courting sofa, or conversation bench) first became popular in the 19th century. Many early examples featured backrests in an S-configuration. This setup had the advantage of allowing two people to discreetly converse together, and also of keeping courting couples from engaging in too much contact.

(Image credit: The Met)

This tête-à-tête, attributed to American furniture maker J.H. Belter, dates to about 1850 and is on display at The Met, in a scene that re-creates an 1850s Manhattan parlor.

(Image credit: 1st Dibs)

This Victorian courting chair is a more modest take on the theme, where the occupants face each other but are kept at a safe distance. It’s $3,600 from 1st Dibs.

(Image credit: 1st Dibs)

Here’s an unusual 3-seat variation, sometimes called a chaperone chair, spotted on 1st Dibs. This configuration allowed a courting couple to be closely observed (or just allowed three people to gossip discreetly together).

(Image credit: Overstock)

This charming piece of garden furniture is called a “kissing bench”. It’s available for $206.99 from Overstock.

(Image credit: John Reeves Design)

This somewhat more modern kissing bench is by John Reeves Design. Acute observers may point out that you can sit in this configuration on any backless bench, but in this case the face-to-face orientation is particularly suggested by the design.

(Image credit: Anthropologie)

This Kettleby Tête-à-Tête, $2,498 from Anthropologie, is a luxurious and unconventional choice for a modern living room.

(Image credit: Anthropologie)

If I had a porch I would definitely own this dual rocking chair ($598 from Anthropologie), which adds, to the luxury of sitting face-to-face, the satisfaction of rocking together.