The playboy future King Edward VII of England—or "Bertie," as he preferred to be called—was well known in the brothels of Victorian Paris. It was in one particular brothel, Le Chabanais, Bertie availed himself of a custom-made love seat that allowed him to have sex with two women simultaneously.
Nowadays, Bertie's chair would barely raise eyebrows among bespoke sex furniture makers. Sex furniture is big business; Liberator, the biggest industry player in the States, employs 200 people, while its competitor The Tantra Chair ships worldwide to countries including Saudi Arabia (huge fans of calfskin sex chairs, apparently).
For those who can't afford to drop upwards of $1,299 on a custom-designed sex chair, Internet forums will identify which IKEA product gives you an unexpected bang for your buck. According to discerning fans, the Hol storage table is great for BDSM.
Angela Lieben, Liberator's tester-in-chief, tells me that the company began 13 years ago. It now describes itself modestly as "the greatest invention for sex since the bed." Basically, if you've ever Googled "cushion under butt missionary," you'll come across Liberator. Founder Louis Freedman created the wipe-clean foam Wedge/Ramp Combo to save women from having to shove a pillow under their asses for that crucial degree of elevation.
The Wedge/Ramp remains the company's bestseller today; its online product description boasts, "You will never go back to flat sex again!" The ramp even makes an appearance in Master of None, Aziz Ansari's new Netflix comedy; in a scene where he futilely tries to persuade his girlfriend to use it, he passionately argues, "It's not a pillow, it's a firm wedge."
"I test everything new out," Lieben explained of her job. "So for example, with the Bon Bon toy mount [a cushion that you can hook up to a sex toy] I took it home and made notes for the engineer on how to perfect it. Mostly making the pocket deeper so the dildo's not as long, and making it slimmer. Now it's one of our top sellers for female solo sex. It's kind of funny because I have a backlog of stuff I need to try—so sometimes it can feel like work! But I try not to complain, because I love my job."
If Liberator makes sex furniture for SUV-driving suburban couples, then Mexican designers Xanath Lammoglia and Andres Amaya design the sort of erotic furniture used by Russian oligarchs living in glass-walled houses.
The chair stands for the revolutionary woman who is by no means submissive to men.
This collection is the furthest thing from inflatable pink plastic dildo chairs; it is design-led and self-consciously intellectual. One chair—the Adela, named for a mythical Mexican female revolutionary—reimagines sex furniture through the concept of feminist history.
What that means in practical terms is a chair that allows the woman to ride the man, with handy foot supports. "The chair stands for the revolutionary woman who is by no means submissive to men," Amaya explains. "It represents [the] modern woman, who makes decisions and lives to the fullest their new roles in society."
The Adela, inspired by a Mexican feminist revolutionary. Photo coutesy of Xanath Lammoglia and Andres Amaya
For those who like the idea of shower sex, but tend to find the reality a bit of a slippery let-down, Amaya and Lammoglia also designed the Wet Connection, an "erotic game" in the form of a shower stall with glory holes and strategic cut-outs.
Where did Amaya and Lammoglia get their inspiration? "We start from an idea based on erotic experiences, and sketch out different options. After that, a series of scaled tridimensional models are built in clay," Amaya says. "Once one of them is selected after lots of feedback from colleagues and friends, we build a prototype that is tried by several people." If you are in the market for a handmade feminist sex chair, you can pick up a limited edition Adela for $3,200.
If that seems ridiculously expensive for a piece of furniture, you can pick up a Kama Sutra-inspired sex chair for half the cost—$1,299. Turns out sex furniture isn't that cheap. But you would at least be channelling Prince Bertie; the sex furniture pioneer's favoured chair was the centrepiece of the Hindu-themed room at Le Chabanais, known to be his favourite room at the legendary brothel.
This isn't a chair for bachelors to use. This is about more than sex.
I interviewed AJ Vitaro, founder of a company called Zen By Design, who manufactures sex chairs inspired by the ancient Hindu relationship manual. "I wanted people to honour their relationships," he says. "I'd observed lots of relationships over the years, and I saw how little people appreciated the moment when they were having sex. So I… created a piece of furniture that would bring Kama Sutra mindfulness into their sphere of attention [during sex]."
While incorporating mindfulness into your sex life is well and good, most sex furniture is more functional in its use. Lieben tells me that Liberator manufacture sex furniture for people who weigh over 300 pounds and might struggle to have sex on conventional furniture. Their Wedge/Ramp combo is popular with older couples, who use it to maintain intimacy well into their 70s and 80s.
For Vitaro, the growth of the sex furniture industry is all about intimacy. "This isn't a chair for bachelors to use," he says. "This is about more than sex. [The chair] isn't a sex aid; it's a relationship aid. I wanted to create something to make a relationship evolve, to fill a void that was in the world."
Even if you find sex furniture a little toe-curlingly awkward—the sort of stuff you see in bad pornos, alongside fur rugs and glass coffee tables—there's no doubt the industry is going to keep growing.
"I think what's happening with the industry is that people are becoming more open-minded," Lieben says. "Drugstores like Walgreens stock our products now, like the flip ramps and the Wedge/Ramp combo. We get lots of older couples coming in, for example—my mother has purchased items from our range. The USA is becoming more open to adventure in the bedroom."
Looking at Bertie's sex chair now, it's strange to think how long it has taken for the market to start producing sex furniture to meet consumers' needs. Amaya agrees. "How strange is it that—even in the middle of the 21st century—there's still such a limited offering for interesting erotic furniture? After all, eroticism is the characterising domain for human beings."