One of the things that thwarts a lot DIY home projects is that people don’t know how to do something and are afraid to ask for help. This becomes especially true when the knowledge gap between the novice and the expert is larger. People get embarrassed if they don’t know the right questions to ask.
When we were designing the Beekman 1802 furniture collection, we had no hesitancy at all in finding the experts to make sure that we were creating truly heirloom pieces.
We turned to the wonderfully informative book written by our Sharon Springs neighbor, David
By Jody Xuereb
The word upholsterer is defined as someone who applies webbing, springs, padding, and fabric to a furniture frame. Not many upholsterers are knowledgeable in the process or art of designing and building the frame they are about to work on, yet someone in the custom upholstered furniture trade must be knowledgeable in both aspects in order to create good furniture.
Custom upholstered furniture is commissioned by the decorator or the client and results in a piece of furniture that is one of a kind. It is imperative that the designer and upholsterer work closely together on custom pieces. All aspects of the design process and the construction are guided by the needs of the client, the vision of the designer, and the expertise of the upholsterer. The challenge of building custom furniture is that the upholsterer rarely has the luxury of building and fine-tuning a prototype model first. The model built will be the one the client receives.
The process begins with the architecture of the frame, which will define the shape and determine the comfort of that piece of furniture. The frame is the foundation and must be correct from the start.
Custom upholstery construction hasn’t changed significantly in the last 200 years. The process still involves skilled handwork that takes many years to hone, and a successful workroom needs a skilled team who understands how to finesse the form. A good upholsterer knows what the piece will look like, and how comfortable it will be, before a single piece of material is applied to the frame.
The upholsterer prepares the frame for fabric by applying the webbing, springs, and hog hair. Typically, the upholsterer will rely on the cutter to tailor the fabric to the furniture. The word tailoring is rarely used when one talks about furniture, but it is what defines the piece, and is the last part of the process.
Over the years, however, the materials for construction have changed to be more cost effective. Our workroom still builds our furniture using traditional materials such as cotton batting and a blend of hog hair and synthetics. This blend closely resembles the horse or hog hair of pre-industrial age furniture construction that is no longer commonly used. All of the commercial furniture on the market today is built with polyurethane foam as padding.
Foam rubber revolutionized the furniture making process, requiring less skilled labor. Unlike hog or horse hair, which is fibrous in nature and must be hand-stitched into place, foam rubber enables the upholsterer to cover large areas very quickly. Custom upholsterers still use coil springs in the seats and backs of our furniture, which requires hand tying in place. Most commercial furniture today is built with either sinuous springs or webbing only. These changes in furniture construction mimic traditional furniture in comfort, but not quality.
Creating a piece of furniture is an artistic process. A good upholsterer is a student of the art form, and he or she must have an understanding of how furniture functions. The upholsterer must also be an architect or engineer, knowing how the pitch of the back, width of the leg, and detail on the arm can be manipulated to create the desired look and comfort.
Most upholsterers are good at one particular era or style of furniture, and it is rare that you find someone who can build in any style. With experience, a good upholsterer should start to recognize the details and measurements used by a particular furniture designer and begin to feel confident putting his or her own hand into the design process. By tweaking existing styles, an upholsterer can make a leg more feminine, a back more masculine, or simply add one’s signature style.
A good workroom can duplicate an existing piece of furniture when the client wants a piece copied. For example, a client may have inherited eight Chippendale dining chairs but they have a need for ten. Or, the clients have a historic Jean-Michel Frank sofa that they wish to make into a pair. This is an important aspect of custom upholstery.
Making a duplicate piece of furniture from a photograph is more difficult, and requires a trained eye as well as a familiarity with the furniture being copied. It is much better for the upholsterer to have access to the original.
It is also important to consider economic factors when making choices regarding upholstered furniture. Many decorators have the misperception that custom work is more expensive than high-end, trade-only showrooms, but this is frequently not the case. A custom-made piece will last a lifetime, and can be reupholstered as often as a client chooses. In contrast, commercial furniture built in the last forty years is more like disposable furniture, which is made to be used for a short period of time. From an economic standpoint, commercial furniture is not worth recovering or repairing.
Over the past twenty years that I have been building furniture there have been certain issues that come up again and again. Here is what a decorator might consider before going to a upholsterer for the first time:
Research the options before choosing an upholsterer. You want to find someone who has the knowledge, experience and perhaps most important, the temperament you can work with.
Be clear about what you want; indecision causes delays
If possible it is important to bring your client into the upholsterer’s showroom so that they can sit on different styles of furniture to determine what is most comfortable for their body type. (overall size, style of arm, back inclination, depth of the seat, and preferred filling)
Before any work has begun, always confirm that the fabric delivered to the upholsterer is in fact the fabric you have selected from the showroom
As in any profession, upholstery workrooms are not all the same, and the quality and cost varies considerably among them. There are three things to look for when shopping for furniture: proportion and scale, comfort, and tailoring. An additional thing to look for is the cleanliness and organization of the workroom, for this is always a telling sign of a good workroom.
Remember that an upholsterer often has a number of jobs lined up, so talk to them early in the process about a time table.
If you have a good workroom that delivers quality and service in a timely manner, do not abuse the relationship. If you treat every project as an emergency, you will wear out your relationship with your workroom and you will risk losing them.
Form should always follow function; that is the client’s needs. In the end, it is the client who will have to live with the furniture.