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RI Archives: Style

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The Wandering Eye: Boning Up on Upholstery

There is a constant up here in the country:  We all share resources, but even so, we all have gaping holes in our Rolodexes/Palms/Outlooks.  “Do you have a good, cheap painter?” (Dream on.)  “My mowing guy quit! Who do you use?” (First tell me why he quit…) “My ‘bootlegger’ is ‘up the river’!!!” (I might know someone…)

As a decorator, the one I get constantly is, “Do you have a good upholstery/curtain guy?” 

Me, I think sofas should be “seen but not heard”—background not foreground.  I’d prefer that the guests find either the company or the “fine” art and antiques more interesting than the “soft goods.”  And, though I hate spending big dough on a sofa when I could be spending big dough on a Charles X commode, you gotta do what you gotta do.         

The soft goods—upholstered chairs and sofas— are key to the way a room works.  People gravitate to an inviting seat and guests linger at a table with comfortable dining chairs.  As with anything in design, its all about balance—not too much soft stuff, not all hard-edged either.

We consider ourselves very lucky—our upholsterer of over 25 years, Michael Gonzalez (Diamint Upholstery) has his workrooms halfway between Manhattan and Germantown, so I get “city” services upstate.  Diamint is comfortable and happy working from Manhattan to Chatham. I can stop by to tweak the furniture and curtains we have in the works either on the way up or on the way back.  Works for everyone.
Tweaking is key, especially for a novice.  Me, after 25 years, I can envision the final product.  I know that I want tiny French nails or huge iron ones, I can throw out “make it a medium Bridgewater,” and Michael and I both know exactly what I mean.  Shorthand…

For you, an Amateur—cut up magazines!!!  Measure carefully.  Copy details from pieces you like.  Think “comfort.”  Find that chair you love to sit in, and it becomes your muse—measure the depth of the seat, the height of the seat.  Focus on where that favorite chair fits you—me, I’m tall so I like ‘em deep. Then there is the pitch of the back—somewhere between upright Puritan and Odalisque should work.
With upholstery, the important and, therefore, pricey stuff is on the INSIDE (hate that; invisible spending. Big Bore) and only your upholsterer can guide you.  Best quality foam wrapped with down and feathers for the seats eliminates constant fluffing (but even these will flatten out if not beaten into submission frequently).  Back cushions can be down and feather.  Throw pillows should be 100% down and light and airy. I like them under-filled.

Off the rack, mass-produced things are glued not screwed, and tend to be all foam, no feathers.  What starts out looking snappy quickly sags and flattens.  I am the first to admit that there is a lot of great looking, well designed ‘catalog’ furniture out there, but when I do the math, I always opt to go custom, pay more, and rest assured it’ll look good until I tire of it (which, in my case, probably will happen long before it wears out). 

Fabric:  If you are going for practical, then pause a moment and think.  Forego unforgiving silk velvet (that naked lady is playing with fire—on so many levels..) and go nubby synthetic (not the curse it once was).  Practical need not be brown.  And always consider how it feels against skin—summer and winter. 

If you think sofas and club chairs are complicated, wait until you delve into curtains, shades, and blinds.  Layer upon layer: One makes the room dark, another kills glare, this element is stationary, that element just raises, and that other one raises and lowers.  A good upholsterer/curtain maker should be able to supply venetian blinds, black-out shades, and curtains—one stop shopping is KEY to both success and peace-of-mind.  The questions are endless: Lining? Interlining? Color of lining? Handsewn? Size of hem?  Weighted hem? French pleats? Reversed French pleats?  Poles or traverse rod? Yadda Yadda.

There is no way this blog can be anything more than the most basic tutorial:  Lesson One being, find a good professional! 
Rural Intelligence StyleBOOKS

Jeffrey Bilhuber’s Defining Luxury (Rizzoli 2008) is a veritable catalog of upholstery details and curtains.  The book seems more about the chairs than the rooms – but that works for us!  For example, the dining chairs on page 120 have leather seats, beige linen backs, green linen anti-macassars and nail heads.  So, pick your poison!  But do pick… Life, even for the rich, should not be an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Restraint.

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Stephanie Hoppen’s “The New Curtain Book”(Bulfinch, 2003) is a gold mine of info.  There are 27 entries in the Index under “valances” – yippee! The book is touted as a master class and contains the work and opinions of 30 designers.  Very useful.
Note: Perhaps the more observant readers notice - how shall we say? - a ‘scatter shot’ aspect to my blogs.  Blame it on the web.  One thing leads to another – and before you know it, UFO’s are in the picture.

It isn’t just me – last night a friend was half bragging/half bemoaning his son’s web surfing and the wealth of info he picks up.  “He can tell you the price per sq foot of the average Malibu mansion, or obscure baseball stats – but he probably couldn’t pick out California on a map.”

You get an idea – and then it runs with you…

I Wikipedia’d ‘upholstery’ – a first step.  And learn about Henry the Upholder, 14th century upholsterer, and the guild with its tent motif (left).  Tents – how obvious. So I think, wasn’t it Henry the VIII with the great tents?  Double click and voila – The Field of Cloth of Gold (below), the legendary tent city for the meeting of Francis I and Henry VIII in 1520.

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So I think – Tent City?  The Shah’s of Iran’s tent city?  That was cool.  So Google that – and we move to 20th century Persia for the 2500th anniversary of the Persian empire, hosted by the Shah in the ‘60’s and a harbinger of problems to come. I think they bit off more than they could chew with Jansen, the Paris decorators, as the party planner.
I’m on Jansen at that point so I revert to an actual book (! I have to get up and lug it back to my desk???  www creates Sloths!) and read up on the Persopolis fete and then I segue to Jansen’s Havana work (they had an office there off-and-on and did some incredible houses/palaces/   
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churches).  I find the photo of a room Hermes and I stumbled into on our last trip—a Jansen dressing room currently being used for “Damas” after the house was converted to a factory.  Since the book doesn’t give much info (“Havana”), it was a design discovery akin to El Dorado. “Mira! El bano Jansen! Dios mio…”         

At this point I’ve expended lots of time and lots of clicks (and some page turning) – all of which was fun for me but not very focused on the Upholsterer’s Art as it pertains to our lives…

So my process is arbitrary and meandering, but like Little Pierre and the Malibu real estate market, I can rattle off Tent stats and revisited Francis I – the subject of my first paper in 10th grade Modern European History class.  Amazing. —Carey Maloney

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Posted by Marilyn Bethany on 08/19/09 at 08:04 AM • Permalink