Tuesday, June 27, 2017

"Modern" Upholstery Conservation Methods Destroy Evidence

Grecian Sofa with Modern Upholstery
For the past several years (actually, since "alternative upholstery conservation" methods were first introduced early in the 1980's) I have had a serious problem with museum conservators destroying original upholstery and the evidence of its traditional construction.  I am a scientist by training.  I believe in analysis, documentation, evidence gathering and research.  I am shocked constantly by what I see in the most important museums in America as the practice of upholstery "conservation."

Two recent events are now pushing me to blog once again about my concerns.  First, as you know, I just got back from an extensive tour of the East Coast.  From Williamsburg to the Met to the Boston MFA  and the Getty, I saw the same thing over and over:  Important and iconic examples of early upholstered furniture with obviously fake upholstery, evident from across the room.  It doesn't even pass the smell test.

The second event occurred this week as I picked up a copy of the 1997 book "American Furniture" edited by Luke Beckerdite.  I love this series of books, published each year by the Chipstone Foundation.  They are wonderful and full of research.  But, when such a distinquished journal publishes articles which can damage the field of decorative arts they need to be identified as such and the article needs a full discussion among professionals.

Surviving Example of Easy Chair Upholstery

This is what concerns me.  The process of removing original upholstery and replacing it with modern materials has been established by "tradition" for so long that it is no longer questioned as valid.  I feel like I'm fighting an uphill battle to get authentic upholstery methods understood and properly conserved before they all are lost forever.

The article which caught my eye is by Leroy Graves and F. Carey Howlett, titled "Leather Bottoms, Satin Haircloth, and Spanish Beard: Conserving Virginia Upholstered Seating Furniture" (Pages 267-297).  It represents the state of the art of this process of saving the wood frames at the expense of the upholstery, and, if you go to the Wallace Collection at Williamsburg you will find nearly every piece in the collection has been treated this way.

Let me quote from this article and then respond using simple logic and scientific questioning.

"Because so few objects survive...the preservation of the chair in its current state takes precedence over restoration to its original appearance."

This statement indicates the concern that more and more examples which retain original upholstery layers are being lost.  I would therefore conclude that the surviving examples must be protected in their untouched state for future analysis by more competent conservators.

Untouched Upholstery 

"The conservator is faced with two difficult tasks: preserving extremely fragile upholstery materials when they survive and reconstructing the appearance of the original upholstery..."

Of course the visitor to the collection should be presented with an object which reflects, as nearly as possible, its original condition.  My question is: does the replacement of original upholstery with copper, plexiglass, Ethafoam and Velcro effectively present a visually authentic result?  Also, what methods are to be used to conserve the fragile materials which are surviving?  Are they to be placed in a drawer in a research laboratory completely removed from the object to which they belong?

How Does This Preserve Upholstery Methods?

"The conservator's work is typically complicated by the overlapping evidence of numerous upholstery schemes.  Distinguising individual schemes can be time consuming and in some instances virtually impossible.  To produce a credible reconstruction of historic upholstery, one needs to develop a thorough understanding of the techniques, materials, and tastes of the period and place of production."

This single statement reveals the most important flaw in the logic of this process.  Frankly current museum conservators are not seriously researching the upholstery methods, including subsequent upholstery commercial restoration treatments, as much as they are researching the wood frames.  When a conservator uses "time consuming" as an argument, he is neglecting the most essential part of his job description.  He is tasked, by definition, with taking all the time he needs to fully understand every aspect of the historic object under his control.  Upholstery is actually more important than the frame, but the frame gets all his attention.

There are still many old professional upholsterers in most large cities who understand traditional methods of upholstery, and how those methods changed over the centuries.  I am a good example.  You can just search this blog for "upholstery conservation" and see what I have learned over the past 50 years or so.  In particular look at the post from last November (11/29/16) and see what simple conservation methods can produce.

I have learned traditional methods of upholstery by careful deconstruction of original layers, which allows me to understand what was original and what was restored, and when the restoration must have occurred.  I then simply replace any damaged or rotten materials with similar materials as closely as I can to the original.  Jute, burlap, muslin, cord, twine, cotton are used to replace the same. The springs and organic stuffing are cleaned and retained in all cases.  That means treating horsehair, wool, Spanish moss, straw, excelsior, and any other organic material used as stuffing with respect and care.  The final result is as close to the original appearance as possible, and can still provide comfort for many years.

As to the damage the upholstery nails cause to the wood frame, which is the main reason for this new "non invasive" upholstery method, that can be resolved with proper techniques.  Using the smallest upholstery nail which works is one way.  Using a protein glue and a covering of muslin or burlap on the wood is another.  In serious cases it is also possible to remove a portion of the damaged wood (which is under the upholstery) and replace it with similar wood.

In the worst case, where the wood frame no longer supports the upholstery a "chassis" or new wood frame can be built to fit inside the old frame.  This new frame can then be properly upholstered with traditional techniques and that serves to provide understanding of traditional methods for future analysis.

This Is Not Period Upholstery

"The goal of treatment may be to re-create the appearance of one of the early schemes, but this task must be accomplished using unconventional, nonintrusive techniques."

This final statement, which is at the beginning of the article, represents the actual failure in the logic of this approach.

I consider the task of deconstructing upholstery layers similar to that of archeology.  In each profession it is the job of the scientist to carefully analyze and document each layer in succession as it is exposed.  During the 1870's there was a German archeologist and con man, Heinrich Schliemann, who claimed to have discovered Troy.  In fact, he dug without any consideration to the process, throwing all the debris in a trash pile, passing through the historic layer of Troy itself, continuing until he found gold.

Subsequent archeologists now have the difficult task of digging through the trash pile in an effort to understand which object came from which strata.

I see a similar fate for future conservators who struggle to understand historic upholstery methods by looking at a naked frame, covered in nail holes, without any context or relationship to the missing materials.

The next time you wander through a museum looking at the upholstery, take a moment to determine if what you are looking at is authentic or fake.


tom ryan said...

Excellent blog entry; very valid points.

António said...

Good point.
Thanks for keeping on posting!

Rev John said...

When I studied Conservation Methods, the very first rule was: "First, DO NO Harm." The second was "never do something that can't be reversed."
Don't they teach this anymore? The museum I work with is a small local one that insists on using those rules. Why are larger museums going away from this basic of methods?

JC said...

As an upholsterer, I feel your pain. It is especially distressing that this work is being done by museums. I don't understand why the pieces are not preserved with their original upholstery (which I agree is one of the most important parts of the piece of furniture). It's not as if they need to worry about severely damaging the piece, since it will likely never again be subjected to wear-and-tear (in a museum at least).

I also find that it's very important to appreciate the eccentricities and uneven qualities that hand-upholstered pieces have. They look somethat perfect when freshly upholstered, but they eventually form uneven areas as certain stuffing materials are compressed, and how the owner sits in the piece.

It's unfortunate that a lot of pieces get redone in foam (for everyday use and in the sake of "modernization" and comfort), but we try to save as many pieces as we can.

W. Patrick Edwards said...

I have posted on this topic in this blog a few times before. Use the Search panel to find more about this.

In fact, I can explain the evolution of this concept fairly simply, as it happened during my career. After the second World War most of the professional upholstery workers switched to using foam instead of organic materials. Foam was new and cheaper and easier so more profit. Nearly every piece of antique furniture that went through the shops had its organic material discarded and replaced with the "newest" material.

Arguments were made about dust, insects, allergies and so on to justify removing straw, Spanish moss, hair and other traditional stuffing materials.

A few old time workers held out, but in general this transformation of process was universal by the 1960's. That meant that new young workers who wanted to learn upholstery were taught modern methods, including using staple guns instead of spitting tacks.

A good example of this change was the adoption of a "staple" tool to clip the bottom of the springs to the webbing, instead of hand sewing them with tufting twine. I have lost more blood due to these damn sharp staples and curse every time I need to remove them.

Thus, during the 1970's the traditional method of upholstery was no longer being taught at any level, except by standing next to an old master and watching him work. That is what I did, fortunately.

I first became aware of the "non invasive" upholstery "conservation" process during a visit to the Getty Conservation Lab when it was at Malibu early in the 1980's. I was shocked at the idea.

Since then it has become standard operating procedure among the smart young museum conservators.

As you correctly suggest, why not just leave it alone until more research is completed and we know what exactly to do?