There was a time, about 100 years ago, when no self-respecting chairs would be caught dead without them. They were frilled, fringed and buttoned to the tips of their tiny toes -- the centerpieces of a room.
Then, along with all things considered fussy and Victorian, they were kicked out of the house. Now, whatever you call them -- ottomans, poufs, hassocks, footstools, the function is the same -- they're back. And they're more portable, versatile and stylish than ever.
"There definitely is a resurgence in popularity of the 'pouf,' " says Newell Turner, style editor of House & Garden magazine. "We've seen them everywhere in the market -- from High Point [N.C.], to Milan to Cologne."
The words on everyone's lips are adaptability and portability.
"It's a very versatile piece of furniture," Turner says. "It works as flexible seating, it works as a table, and it can be moved around the room very easily. They can add a note of whimsy, a spot of color, and there's not the commitment of a chair or sofa."
These are not your grandmother's ottomans.
They come in all kinds of shapes. Jeanne Broadie-Moore, a design consultant at Ethan Allen in Catonsville, said contemporary ottomans are often covered in luxe fabrics, such as silk, or in highly textured ones, such as linen or sisal. When leather is used, she said, it may be metallic, rather than the well-worn natural look of more traditional pieces.
"The traditional poufs were plump and overstuffed," says Turner. "Now they're in all sorts of styles. I just saw some today at the new MOMA [Museum of Modern Art] store ... they were little poufs that almost look like big round balls." In a display in Cologne, he said, round poufs in shades of gray, black and white "were scattered across the floor like pebbles."
The trend has been building for the last few years. Jackie Hirschhaut, of the American Furniture Manufacturers Association in High Point, says that while ottomans have always been "an item" in a certain type of decorating, they've become far less formal and far more prevalent in recent years.
They're newly popular, she says, because they do what is essentialin the '90s: they multi-task.
"It's part of their appeal," Hirschhaut says. "They can function as a seating surface, a table surface -- and if the top could pop off for more storage, think how much more useful they would be."
"We've always offered ottomans with our furniture," both sofas and chairs, leather and upholstered, says David Glassman, of Restoration Hardware, based in Northern California. When Glassman says "always," he means post-1980, when the first store in the retail chain was opened, in Eureka, Calif. (A new store opened recently at The Mall in Columbia.)
"It makes a lot of sense," Glassman says. "People like to put their legs up when they're sitting. Another thing, you can throw the remote control and the TV Guide on it. You can put a tray with food on it, and where space is at a premium, it's great for auxiliary seating."
Wherever you put them, today's ottomans are designed to relax a look, not to formalize it. Urbana, a young firm based in Santa Clara, Calif., offers the puzzle-piece-shaped Jumble ottoman, with four pieces that can be put together in any shape, and the Centipede ottoman, a gentle S-shape with bands of color and minimalist aluminum legs.
Even Hollywood fashion designer Bob Mackie, most noted for his sequined and beaded gowns, is getting into the ottoman act. He's expanding his line of furniture for Clayton Marcus with a round ottoman whose four pieces -- shaped like pieces of pie -- can be taken apart and moved around wherever they're needed.
"We've seen them in master baths, uphollstered with terry cloth," said Turner, of House & Garden.
Broadie-Moore of Ethan Allen said, "We're seeing them in childrens' room. They're a cute piece they can sit on, or use as a dressing seat." With the trend toward including sitting rooms and dressing rooms in master suites in new houses, Broadie-Moore said, ottomans are showing up there. "You can stand on it to reach into a closet, or sit on it to put on your shoes."
Why are ottomans called ottomans? It all has to do with conquerors and traders.
Ottomans presumably were named after the medieval Ottoman Empire, which flourished in what is now Turkey, Greece, the Balkans and other parts of central Asia. By the late 17th century, European colonialism and trade efforts had introduced the West to "the Orient;" and all things "Oriental" -- including coffee -- became the fashion rage.
In the first years of the 19th century, Europe's attention turned from the Middle East to the Mediterranean. Classicism was "in" and Orientalism was "out."
Then Victorian designers rediscovered the ottoman, refining the elongated shape, and paring down the size. In the early 20th century, however, a taste for sleeker shapes banished the ottoman again.
It took most of the century, but the plucky hassock crept back into the house on little bun feet in the heady '80s, when no self-respecting Wall Street titan would be caught dead without his "worn" leather club chair and matching foot rest, the better to sip his Maker's Mark and light up a fresh Cohiba.
The market crashed, but the style lived on. Today, with everyone from society designers to high-style low-price retailers such as IKEA offering them, ottomans are invading the entire house.