The new empire of the ottoman

 As a matter of decor, the ottoman rules.

Its familiar pairing, snug to a chair, is inviting. The ottoman mimics line for line, showing off legs or graceful skirt, topped with tufting or outlined in piping or nailheads.

But the ottoman is not a mere footstool. It can stretch to a sizeable rectangle, round or oval shape, morphing into a cocktail table. Add a shelf beneath, and magazines and books tuck away neatly. A detachable tray cleverly gives it another role, for holding drinks and edibles. A liftoff top reveals storage inside.

It’s a piece of furniture prized for its adaptability, a bonus being extra seating for guests.

“There is not a room in the house where I can’t use an ottoman,” says Virginia-based interior designer Barry Dixon. “I’ve even upholstered ottomans in towels for the bathroom. Place it right by the tub or as a vanity seat for a dressing table.”

Through its history, the ottoman has embraced many styles. Also known as a tuffet, which recalls the nursery rhyme and images of Miss Muffet eating her curds and whey, that image seems old-fashioned.

In the ’50s, some referred to a bulky upholstered cube as a hassock. That name dates to the early 16th century, when hassocks were kneelers in churches.

Then, there’s the taboret (literally small drum), introduced in the early 17th century.

And the pouf, a rounded-off overstuffed cushion, whose Gallic name dates to the 1880s. Some say there’s a bit of onomatopoeia at play — the sound or wind caused by a deflating object. British decorators still use the term, and it has been recently resurrected by at least one American retailer.

For all the straight-lined, tautly upholstered, mostly unadorned ottomans, there are those with a more distinctly feminine or sassy attitude. Haute House, a Hollywood, Calif.-based company, considers its furnishings “haute couture” for the home.

With combinations of brocade, velvet and silk all stitched into one piece, and trims that include beads and fringe, Haute House ottomans well suit a more flamboyant personality, accustomed to everyday bling.

Haute House owner and designer Casey Fisher explains:

“Some say furniture follows fashion. We like to switch that around. We’re always on the lookout for elements and details you would never think would work on furniture, and we find them in the fashion world. Bobbles, bangles and beads, oh my! We like to think our products would hold up on any runway: dressmaker pleats, French lace over silk taffeta or linen and lace — it’s all about fashion for the home.”

Even the design process for Haute House is different. “Most of our ottomans start as a bejeweled vintage brooch, a sparkling rhinestone button or a fine piece of Chantilly lace,” says Fisher. “From there, we design a silhouette around it. It’s like designing a setting for a precious stone.”

Besides over-the-top, more dressed-to-the-nines ottomans, there are plenty of other options from cottage style to crisply tailored to curvy rattan.

While similar in shape, the Eaton ottoman from Williams-Sonoma Home has an arched back and rolled arms, but both are outlined in nailheads, as is the base of the pillow-topped ottoman. And the Malabar chair and ottoman from Pottery Barn are simply sculptural, with big sweeping curves extending to small ball feet. A herringbone weave introduces texture and subtle pattern.

Stand-alone ottomans easily can become focal points. Consider a rectangular piece on turned legs with a cushioned top covered in a densely woven kilm, available through Pottery Barn. It can serve as a striking bench placed in front of a fireplace.

Large-scale ottomans with smooth or tufted tops make excellent cocktail tables. Their proportions should relate to a sofa or chairs in a room’s footprint, and although there are no set rules, it should be convenient if not close to seat height.

Embellished ottomans clearly command attention in a room. Smaller-scale ottomans can assume more retiring roles — tucked out of the way until needed. Placed under a sofa table, for example, a pair or trio of ottomans on casters can be rolled out for additional seating. At the foot of a bed, multiple ottomans can serve as a bench.A”The wonderful thing about an ottoman,” says Casey Fisher, “is that it fits anywhere and can function as just about anything. Add a tray to the top and it becomes the focal point for snacks or cocktails with friends or family. Add a brooch, and it becomes your favorite piece of jewelry in your dressing room.

“I like the finishing touch an ottoman brings to a room — that last ‘Voila!'”