Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Diversity Survival Mode

When I arrived in Paris in 1991 to enter ecole Boulle, I was introduced to many important craftsmen in the field of furniture making. They would ask me what I did for a living and I would mention that I did everything: restoration, conservation, creation, upholstery, weaving splint seats and rush seats, veneering and marquetry, turning, carving, polishing, making hardware, fixing locks and keys, replacing period glass, and so on, thinking that I was impressing them with my diverse talents.

I quickly learned that this approach was counter productive. The philosophy of craft in Europe is that you spend your life in one field. In fact, you should spend your life focusing on one aspect of that field, so that you can truly master the trade. You know the mantra: Jack of all trades, master of none.

So, I changed my introduction. If I was introduced to a carver, I said that I was a carver. If I was introduced to an upholsterer, that was my trade. And so it goes, to quote Vonnegut.

I did not start out to be a "furniture conservator in private practice" as my listing in the AIC directory states. I first started out as an upholsterer. That was because, in my neighborhood, there was an 85 year old upholsterer who moved here from New York and set up shop. I would visit and spend hours talking with him, watching him as he worked, methodically tying springs, stitching horsehair stuffing and spitting tacks. He was old, but his hands were strong and agile.

I thought, "I could do that." And so I did. It was very rewarding.

When customers asked me where they could get the wood repaired or refinished while the upholstery was changed, I said, "I can do it." I started to get more jobs, since I was able to do the complete project. My entire career has been successful because I am not afraid to take on jobs which require adapting and learning new methods. I should say, discovering old methods which are almost forgotten.

This typically American philosophy of craft has kept me in business during the past years, when others are closing up shop. I can adapt to whatever job walks in the door.

Currently, I am doing a lot of upholstery. I still find it interesting and rewarding. I am one of the last who spit tacks, tie springs by hand (8 knot Italian cord) and stitch horsehair.

The trade of upholstery took a wrong turn in the 1950's, when foam and staples became available. Hundreds of years of using organic materials were abandoned in favor of the new materials. Horsehair, Spanish moss, kapok, down feathers, cotton batting, excelsior, straw and other materials were removed from antique furniture and thrown out in the trash. Foam was added in place and, not only was the shape of the upholstery different but the comfort that those earlier materials provided was lost.

As it turned out, foam deteriorates rather quickly. Early foam from the 50's lasted about a decade. Later foam was improved and lasted several decades. Modern foam is supposed to last much longer, but will it? Horsehair lasts a century and more and still retains its shape.

Perhaps the most serious loss has been to the actual craft of upholsterer. Being an upholsterer in the 18th century was more prestigious than being a cabinet or chair maker. The trade of upholsterer included aspects of what we call today, interior designer. The upholsterer advised the client on fabric selection, bed "furniture", drapes and carpets and diverse textiles. All these materials were very expensive and the value of the actual upholstery on the chairs and sofas exceeded the value of the woodwork.

Upholstery is one of the few trades you can learn by undoing and studying antique examples. To restore upholstery means to take it apart, layer by layer, conserving the stuffing and springs, and replacing the jute webbing, cord, burlap and muslin with similar materials. Properly done this work can fully restore the original comfort and look of early seating furniture. As older, traditional upholsterers retire or die, this trade is in danger of becoming obsolete. The pieces which survive with their original foundation are rare and need to be properly conserved.

This week, if you ask me what I do for a living, I will respond: "I am an upholsterer."


Renewable Community Power said...

What's the best book(s) you can recommend for learning these old skills?

W. Patrick Edwards said...

I have several excellent books to recommend:

1834 "The London Upholsterers Companion" by John Saville Crofton, England

1891 "Practical Upholstery" by John Phin, New York

1904 "Upholstery" by Paul N. Hasluck, Philadelphia

1919 "Furniture Upholstery For Schools" by Emil A. Johnson, Illinois

1921 (reprint 1980) "Practical Upholstering" by Frederick Palmer, New York

1944 "Practical Upholstery" by John W. Stephenson, New York

1987 "Upholstery in America and Europe" by Edward S. Cooke, New york

1990 "Upholstery A Complete Course" by David James, England

1994 Tapisserie D'Ameublement" by Claude Ossut, Editions H. Vial, Paris (ecole Boulle)

1997 "Upholstery Restoration" by David James,

1997 "Upholsterers and Interior Furnishing in England" by Geoffrey Beard, New Haven (Yale)

These are excellent reference books on the historic methods used in traditional upholstery.