To Upholster Or Not To Upholster

Not sure whether your furniture is worthy of an upgrade? Our interior design columnists help you decide.

How many times have we heard the saying, “beauty is only skin deep.  It’s what’s inside that matters most”?  This could also be said of furniture, particularly upholstered pieces.  When you desire a fresh look and you are deciding whether to recover, re-upholster or buy a new piece of furniture, there are several factors to consider. 

First, let’s define the upholstery terms of recovering versus re-upholstering.  When a piece only requires a change in exterior fabric, it is considered recovering.  When repair such as retying springs, re-stuffing, re-wrapping cushions or making the frame sturdier is required in addition to needing new exterior fabric, it is defined as re-upholstering.  When updating antique pieces, re-upholstery is often necessary.

The considerations:

One consideration in deciding the fate of your existing upholstered furniture is quality.  A quality piece of furniture generally has a frame made of kiln-dried hard wood such as oak, maple or ash.  Wooden dowels or screws are used to join the wood frame and it is sometimes further reinforced with blocking (the application of wooden blocks behind the joinery).  Springs in a fine piece of furniture are eight-way-hand-tied coil springs which allow for more comfort and movement (up and down, side-to-side) when one sits down rather than a rigid feel.  An additional indication of quality is having cushions with heft or density.  Our favorite cushions contain a foam core with down wrapping or downblend.  It is also better to have down-proof ticking under the upholstery fabric to prevent the feathers from poking through.

When deciding between buying new upholstered furniture or working with furniture you already own you should base your decision on whether not the piece has good form.  Lovely exposed wood, unique size and historical style fall under the category of form.  For instance, if your piece has graceful, mahogany, cabriole legs; intricate carving on the arm with a distressed finish or ball and claw feet, this is great form.  If your 24” wide chair or 90” long sofa fits perfectly into your space, then the piece is a great candidate for recovery or re-upholstery. A few classic pieces we frequently recommend for re-upholstery or recovery are the camelback sofa, the wing chair, the bergère and the channel back chair.    

Finally homeowners should consider whether any of the furniture they own has sentimental significance.  Maybe it’s the traditional Southern girls in us; however quality and form have little effect on our decision when it comes to family furniture.  So, if Grandmother used to sit in it every night while she read her Bible, the chair may not be magnificent, but we’re going to find a way to make it work somewhere in our home.  The simple addition of a colored high-gloss finish and an updated fabric go a long way to improve the look of an upholstered piece of furniture.  If you have an emotional tie to an upholstered piece and it won’t take a sizeable amount of work to incorporate it into your décor, by all means do it.

The client:

In our most recent project, Gracious Living By Design clients and Fort Hunt residents Greg and Laura Fortsch wanted an update to their existing furniture upon moving into their new home.  Laura, a native of Williamsburg, VA was in possession of a number of lovely pieces of family furniture.  In this case, good quality, form and sentimental significance were all present in her upholstered furniture, so re-upholstery and recovery were the major needs in this project and she only needed to purchase two new upholstered pieces to complete our design.  We highlighted the furniture’s good “bones” with accents such as contrast and double welt (fabric-covered cording sewn into seams along the edges of furniture).  In addition, we created a playful juxtaposition between the classic furniture forms and chic fabric coverings.  The before and after photos in the gallery to the right demonstrate the dramatic effect re-upholstery can have on a piece of furniture.

The tradesman

For this task, we turned to President of Mount Vernon Upholstery, Alex Kim, for his expertise and great reputation.  Specializing in antiques, Mount Vernon Upholstery has been in business for 10 years.  When asked his advice on selecting an upholsterer, Kim suggests that customers research their prospective upholsterer’s reputation on consumer opinion web sites such as Washington Consumers’ Checkbook and Angie’s List in addition to gathering feedback from the company’s customers.  Mount Vernon Upholstery can also be found on Facebook where they feature photos of recent jobs.  Laura told us she was happy with the upholstery. "He did a great job and attention to detail on the big wing chairs was amazing - they are mirror images of each other which couldn't have been easy with that pattern!” 

About the designers:

Gracious Living By Design is a business in the making of friends and fellow graduates of The George Washington University’s Master of Fine Arts in Interior Design program, Anna Kucera and Cherilyn McCall.   Please continue to follow our monthly column on Fort Hunt Patch.  We welcome your comments, questions and suggestions. You can email us at graciouslivingbydesign@gmail.com.

Anna K. Holland September 13, 2011 at 09:12 PM
Enjoyed your article ladies! I look forward to reading future design ideas, tips, etc. Anna, I am so happy to see your hard work come to fruition. I love your business name; suits you perfectly! I hope to meet Cherilyn sometime soon. Good luck and God speed! Aunt Anna


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