I had these antique pieces in their run-down state for a couple of years. When I acquired them, I knew they were the kind of thing that would not settle for ordinary. When they came to me, they looked like this:
You really couldn’t sit on the settee because the springs were falling out of the bottom, but the seller had stripped the old fabric off and put this muslin on, I think to make them more attractive. She needn’t have done that; it was pretty easy to see their potential no matter what. The gilding on these pieces was untouchable–shiny in many places, worn, dull in spots, greenish in others, glazed in some crevices, missing in some areas–and tells a story that no one will ever hear. They are very old, and obviously hand-carved, in mahogany. They needed a special fabric, and when I saw the Designers Guild Mattiazzo, there was no question about their future.
I don’t use foam when I upholster antique pieces. I have invested in learning and practicing the traditional ways of upholstering that include hand-tied coil springs, excelsior foundation, burlap, stitching the integrated sculpted edge roll for structure, and stuffing with horsehair and cotton. It’s labor intensive and expensive, but beautiful and long-lasting. When I’m done, it feels like I have created a piece of art, not just furniture. I call it “artisanal upholstery”.
Come into my studio! Here are a few process shots to show just how intricately constructed the guts are in these pieces:
And, voila! Many steps later, we have the finished product!
Here they are together, comparing notes on how far each one has come over the last 100 or more years. We’ll never know where they started, but they aren’t planning to quit anytime soon!
These are for sale. Check them out in my Etsy shop. You can also contact me directly.
I have discovered that I love making upholstered furniture. Not, by the way, with foam stuffing. Using traditional methods of upholstering furniture is like sculpting with stitches. You are not at the mercy of the materials, but the materials are at the mercy of your hands. Horsehair, cotton, and coiled springs–a great combination for truly stylish, refined furniture with longevity. Kind of like putting yourself out of business!
These began on a Craigslist whim, as most of my purchases do. I loved the curve between the front legs on these antique mahogany chairs. I knew the frames would look amazing in black, topped with some velvet. And pink. Pink was required. They were so sad and neutral. See:
Since my new favorite thing to do now is upholstering, I knew that six of these babies would provide me with adequate practice to get it right, and they did. After ripping out the old guts, including the old zig-zag “springs”, sanding, and repairing every lose joint, I painted them black and put a satin topcoat on them. That was the easy part! To upholster, I did them in phases, perfecting my technique: webbing, springs, burlap, horsehair, muslin, cotton, velvet. And the seat backs: fabric, stuffing, support, stuffing, fabric. I’m really having a hard time preferring any other way to spend my time!
Some highlights of the process:
The pink floral seat backs got tightly woven burlap to keep their shape, and layers of cotton. This floral fabric has a very linear weave, so it was important to keep the weave straight, and tight as a drum.
Yards and yards of double welting made from the velvet brought the whole look together. I was actually sad when they were done. But they made someone in Kentucky very happy!
A few years ago, I began to be attracted to lovely photos of creatively upholstered furniture. I looked at them with an aim to recreate them myself, and with my creative skill set, I knew I could do that, albeit not without a struggle. I found these old French chairs, which are slightly different, but both in need of serious reconstruction.
These were found at two different places, and were in equally horrible condition. Both were stuffed with crunchy old hardened foam. My aim was to bring them back to fine antique condition, which entailed learning a whole new skill set: traditional upholstery. Techniques used in this method of upholstery involve no foam. I had to learn how to tie springs by hand, stuff with excelsior (wood wool), stitch with twine into burlap, pound tacks, arrange horsehair, and tuft, tuft, tuft.
This sort of trade is disappearing. It is time consuming and takes much practice. It is expensive. However, the finished product is sculptural and long-lasting. It will never harden or crumble. It is authentic. It’s also a bit of a hunt to find someone who will teach it to you. I could go to the UK, where the craft is very much alive, and is taught many places, or I could go to Nebraska. I was referred to a master antique upholsterer there who was willing to have me spend a week training in his workshop, so I went.
The week I spent with Kim Buckminster, of Buckminster Upholstery, was eye-opening. There wasn’t nearly enough time to learn everything, but I got started on one of these chairs. He taught me many different techniques that I could apply, but most importantly, I learned the FEEL of good upholstery, and that details matter. I left with an awe of his talent and techniques, and a vow that I would do this.
Over the next year or so, I worked on these chairs, off and on. I read old upholstery manuals found at thrift shops and traditional upholstery tomes that aren’t even in print anymore, found on Amazon. I did, undid, and redid many of the steps along the way, because they did not meet the standard I was looking for. Tufting was the hardest. It was like an instructor put the same inside back in front of me every day, and I had to strip it at the end of each day until I got it right! But all that was practice, and actually very satisfying, because in the end, I got two skillfully upholstered chairs in the traditional method. And it was my kind of fun.
Here are a few progress shots so you can get the idea of all the steps that were involved!
This is not a tutorial. It is my attempt to shed some light on the upholstery trade I admire. I see so many upholstery tutorials in blogland made by people who don’t do upholstery very well, and shouldn’t be telling other people how to do it. The “looks okay to me” style of upholstery, with crooked box cushions and loose, wrinkled fabric causes people to be fine with a lower standard. I have found that most people don’t even know what their furniture is stuffed with. Some think that quality upholstery is “too expensive”, so they buy at mass-market low-grade furniture stores. Not surprisingly, those pieces have very short useful lives when the foam disintegrates or sags, and are not worth recovering.
Personally, I look at furniture differently now. Foam has its place, such as in contemporary or mid-century modern pieces, but it also has different levels of firmness, quality, and longevity. I am a firm believer that you get what you pay for! These chairs will have a long life, and when the fabric wears a little, you’ll only need to take the finish fabric covers off and replace them. The guts will stay in shape for the next 50-75 years!
I’ll be attempting more traditional upholstery projects. I’ve started on a set of six antique French dining chairs and they won’t take me as long because there’s no tufting, and I know what I’m doing now!
These cuties are for sale. Contact me directly, or go to my shop. I have a lot of beautiful, skillfully done, one-of-a-kind vintage furniture pieces for sale there.
Just for fun, while I dragged my heels finishing up some tedious touches on one project, I did a (supposedly) quick project. I had previously stumbled upon, and brought home, the perfect dresser for some milk paint, which I have been yearning to use for some time. This one was in great structural condition, so all it needed were cosmetic improvements. Here it is:
I always sand and prep every piece carefully. I didn’t want any chipping with this one, so I also added the bonding agent. I’m convinced that this material is just watered down polyurethane, but I’m not a chemist and they don’t list the ingredients on the bottle.
I used Peacock, from The Real Milk Paint Company. I enjoy the lights, darks, and striated colors of milk paint mixed from pigments and powders. When I have an actual antique (not just vintage) piece, it’s my paint of preference.
It took many coats because I mistakenly sanded through the finish down to raw wood around the original pulls, which had cut large circular patterns in the wood that I knew would show when I used different pulls. When you don’t sand evenly with milk paint, it soaks in differently and becomes very obvious. Drat. At one point, I had to cover the whole thing with flat polyurethane to get an acceptable even finish with several more coats.
When the piece looked done, I coated the whole thing with tung oil. This brings out more color in the paint, and enriches it. The drawers were sanded and sealed inside, and the great steel casters were rubbed with a little gold wax. Then I put on the jewelry: green and yellow agate pulls from Anthropologie. Those are what this piece is about, anyway.
See the striations? That’s what I like about Milk Paint.
A few spots did chip, so I ended up sanding those back a bit and reapplying the paint and the oil. It’s a very relaxed, very livable look with a pop of glam in the fascinating brass mounted agate pulls.
As I have mentioned before, these old Empire dressers are ubiquitous. And, age does not mean value every time. Since this one was in such terrible condition inside, it wasn’t worth rebuilding and trying to restore. It was, however, worth sharpening my skills and creativity to make something new out of it. A buffet came to mind: keep the top drawers and make a new open space out of the bottom.
The bottom drawer sides, the actual supports for the drawers on the runners, were so worn down that each drawer had to be lifted into the frame to close it, causing chipping to the face veneer. The drawer sides would all need to be replaced (dovetails and all), which was not going to happen. The drawer supports (I call them runners) had all been poorly replaced sometime in the past, as you can see from the back (which was also missing).
There were no dividers between the drawers anymore, so the soft old wood dust was raining down on whatever was stored in the drawer below every time they were opened or closed. The drawer bottoms were falling out from shrinkage and expansion over the years.
So, I gutted the insides. A few whacks with the hammer and the drawer runners came right out. No regrets.
The newly freed open space got a lining of new wood, filled and sanded.
I remembered some hardware I bought at a picker’s paradise in Pennsylvania called Shupp’s Grove. They were very old, stamped metal shield pulls. These pulls, and the stiff, upright nature of the piece’s side columns, inspired a military/nautical style paint treatment, using navy, white and gold. Like so:
So fun to do, and far more appealing than the old brown ubiquitous dresser. Check it out in my shop: city girl arts on Etsy.
Let me know what you think on the post on my facebook page, or in the comments below. Thanks for reading!
This dated mahogany behemoth came to me from a CL seller in Ybor City. It had promise. However, the guy had taken the back off (and threw it out) and drilled cord holes in the drawers for media equipment. Not an unusual use, but he seemed to think that “feature” added value. Um, no, just work. The huge hole in the top was also a minus.
Once I simplified it, removing all the little 1920’s wood spool-like decorations, and that cow skull shaped veneer shield on the door fronts, I knew I had the perfect hardware to glamorize it: cut-glass round knobs from Anthropologie, with the most amazing large acanthus leaf brass pulls I bought (eight of them!) at a vintage market some months ago.
This buffet is so big that white seemed to be the most fitting color, especially with the glass and brass thing going on. White allows the simplicity of the piece to show. The lovely details–turned legs ending in stylized feet, the subtle routings, and the backsplash pediment–all stand out better. See for yourself.
The insides of the cubbies are painted dark grey. A water-based satin finish thoroughly protects the new paint, and gives this buffet the subtle sheen that complements the bohemian look. Check it out in my Etsy shop.
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A lot of mediterranean design went on in the 1970’s. Chunky, clunky, and massive seemed to be the look of the day, with a reference to Spanish style motifs and patterns. Many companies made these Spanish revival pieces, but not all of them withstood the test of time. Now, 40+ years later, the good ones, like Henredon, are ready for their makeovers.
This Henredon Alvarado set, found at a thrift store, was really well treated over the years and functioned just like new. The finish, however, would never see the inside of a modern room. Scuffed, scraped, scratched, speckled, yellow-brown, and sporting super ugly, chunky hardware, it needed to be revived. The before, as usual, looks a whole lot better in photos:
Now for the fun part. What to do? Eggplant seemed to be the best color–dramatic, modern, edgy. The wood tri-foil motifs would stay, but the hardware needed to go. I designed some laser-cut wood quatrefoils to echo the tri-foil design, and searched for weeks for the kind of hardware that would be eye-catching but not conflicting to go on top of them. The quatrefoils painted metallic pewter, like the pewter hand twisted ring pulls (each one is different), brought the zing I was looking for. To tie it in, the bases of the pieces, under the bottom molding, are painted metallic pewter, as well.
In the evenings, the purple looks almost black. In the sunny daytime, it brightens up. It’s really a dramatic difference, this makeover, and makes me want to keep them. They are for sale, however, in my Etsy shop. Thanks for reading, and, as always, I appreciate your comments!
Abstract bird painting by me. Pear painting by Domi Willliams.
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