Here’s a very satisfying “before and after.” These chairs arrived in my workroom in a well-loved condition. The consignment shop where I found them had slit the webbing to remove the nasty, crumbling, petrified foam that was sprinkling out everywhere. Since they were such a fine quality, there were no repairs to be made, but they needed to be sanded and painted because of 70 years of (surprisingly little) wear: dings, nicks, scratches. The before:
Although these had foam over the webbing, I replaced it with coil springs and horsehair because such nice chairs deserved the finer traditional upholstery treatment. Here’s the progression:
I chose a fine velvet from GPJ Baker called Barcelona in the Indigo colorway. It has a large repeat, which allowed me to use a different part of the fabric on each of the chairs. The fabric is vivid and bohemian in nature, with parts of it quite irridescent. I always find the finer fabrics to be lovely to work with, and this one was no exception. It went on beautifully over the scrim, or calico, (as they say in the U.K.) layer.
These turned out so well, and happened to sell right away, so I’m going to be looking out for more to transform!
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.
I picked up these gems more than two years ago, and squirreled them away until I had a vision, and the tools, workspace and ability to carry out that vision. I’ve been painting furniture for more than half my life (not necessarily for pay), but, as we see elsewhere in society, technology has been evolving super fast even in the furniture painting realm, over the last few years. And, actually, campaign pieces have become very desirable now in the vintage furniture world as well. Which is to say that I might have been a little ahead of my time when I picked these up. This happens from time to time; I discovered gray many years ago, and it really now has taken over beige and brown as a neutral. But I digress.
This is how the set looked. Hard to believe that brown/black look was lovely in anyone’s bedroom. But hey, remember the 1970’s? My sister and I had a lovely orange/red/yellow shag area rug in between our rainbow comfortered twin beds. This set, as is, would have gone just fine with that, except that the oak veneer was chipping in too many places. Whomever owned this thought so little of it they shipped it off to the thrift store, where I spied it.
Don’t forget, we are talking about Henredon here. Lasting, classic, quality, albeit in need of cosmetic repair. Did they know, when they made this set, that the design would be coming back around? Campaign furniture in the 1970’s was made not for portability and stackability, as it had originally been designed for war campaigns, but to evoke the feeling of luxurious travel, as it was also formerly used, with porters taking the pieces by the recessed side handles and loading them onto trains bound for destinations where everyone wore white in the hot sun and fanned themselves with palm fronds. Interesting to imagine. But again, I digress. Vintage campaign style furniture today is just plain hot.
The color? Blue. It had to be blue. Navy? Royal? A little of both? Yes. Satiny? No. Shiny? Yes. A gazillion coats later, in a fairly non off-gassing water-based clear coat, the sapphire blue shines almost as brightly as the gleaming brass hardware–all 14 3-piece pulls, 12 L-brackets, 12 sabots (feet), and 72 tiny escutcheon pinheads: delacquered, cleaned, polished, buffed, and relacquered (Mr. City Girl was a little concerned about my brain cells). A bench buffer became a necessity.
Now that it is done, does this bedroom set evoke an era of luxurious travel? An era of military campaigns? I don’t know, but I feel that it has never looked better.
Thanks for reading. If you have comments, I’d love to read them on my City Girl Arts facebook page. It’s public, and you don’t have to be on facebook or friend me to visit me there (But if you click “like”, then my posts will be in your feed). Just click the link, and you’ll also find out where to purchase these charmers, or any of my other pieces. At the moment, they are available in my shop: City Girl Arts on Etsy. Ooops, not anymore :)–they went to live in a nice condo with a politician in Miami Beach.
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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I have a passion for applying paint. Any paint to anything. Canvases, furniture, accessories, walls, whatever. I would actually rather be applying paint to canvases all the time, but since there is no market for undiscovered wanna-be artists, I have to express my artistic soul on furniture. People buy furniture, it seems, much more frequently than original art, because we can’t hide our stuff in art, right?!
So when this dated French hutch presented itself, with its expanses of blank, I knew what I had to do.
Coat it in chocolate, because it’s French (couverture). And put some gilding on the trim because shiny gold is nice. And then put some abstract art on the new wood (bye-bye glass) panels because, well, I wanted to. Like those artisanal chocolates you see from expensive shops: