Friday, December 07, 2007

Still Life with Staple Gun

This is one of my dining-room chairs. That grey stuff in the seat? Horsehair. Notice how it picks up the dirt in the rug. Now that's coordinated decor.

These chairs, and the table that goes with them, are family heirlooms. Mom gave them to me in 1996 and made me swear on my life to protect them*, in a scene not unlike that one from Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo's just, you know, doing some gardening or whatever and Gandalf goes up to him and hisses, "Keep it secret! Keep it safe!" as his eyes roll around in his head.

They're about 100 years old, made in London and imported by some chichi person to Houston, Texas, where my mother snapped them up and kept the whole set clean and perfect for years and years before handing them down to me.

They are fabulous, no? The history! The little curvy legs! The disintegrating leather!

I never even thought about having them reupholstered. My parents never had them redone, so I figured I got a pass, too.*

At least, that is what I will tell myself, late at night, when I realize that I lived with these chairs for eleven years while they steadily deteriorated. I had people over! I made them sit in these chairs! They probably caught something.

Look at that. It's like chair mange.
OK, so now that you've seen my chairs, imagine what my old bathroom curtain looked like.
And now imagine that 30 of my neighbors are going to be trooping through my bathroom on Sunday. In other words, seeing how we really live.
Obviously this could not stand. Heather had told me that Pacific Fabrics and Crafts was packed full of interesting prints, and so I skipped down there yesterday at lunch to find a couple yards of fabric that I could safety-pin to the curtain rod in the back bathroom.
I avoided the quilting section because if I see fabric with cowboys on it, I will buy it, and I do not want to look crazy in front of the neighbors.
So I headed for the back of the store, where there are huge bolts of non-crazy fabric--among them a lime-green Nubuck. I fell in love with it, and it hit me: I could reupholster something with this.
Something like the heirloom chairs malingering in my dining room.
But there was only the one color. I stood there, trying to convince myself that C would not leave me if I recovered our 100-year-old chairs in lime green, knowing otherwise. So I gave it up as a bad job, found some fabric that looked like something an adult might hang in her bathroom, and headed for the check-out counter.
That's when I saw the 50 other bolts of Nubuck, in every color a person might want, including a light sage green that looks gorgeous against old oak.
And that, my friends, is when I became an upholsterer.
See below, Step 1: Flip the seat thingie out of your chair, prop on table, gasp at the sheer number of tacks, staples, and itty bitty nails you will have to pry out.
Here's what they don't tell you about Step 1: when you are done, your hands will be completely sliced up, and the chairs look like they are completely fucked. Your mother's words from 1996 are still ringing in your ears, and you have just dismantled the dining set she holds dear.
So really, you can only hope the injuries to your hands will result in your swift death. You've got a pretty good shot at that, actually, since your wounds are covered in century-old horsehair.
But never mind. Staunch the bleeding and keep at it. Your husband is away on a business trip but he's coming home in 24 hours, and you're hosting the annual neighborhood do in 72 hours. You have no choice but to persevere. And drink.
As did I. This is how my chair looked in its denuded state. It's very Zen, no? Reminds me of an assignment in my 10th grade drawing class.

Note how tightly the leather was wrapped through the corners. I documented this, assuming - wrongly, as it turned out - that I'd be able to duplicate it. Ha! Those London upholsterers knew their shit.

They somehow figured out how to fold the corner bits so that when you pull them, they accordion up, but otherwise lay flat. This, I never managed.

Note the wineglass in the background. Never use a staple gun without fortifying yourself first. I think it says that right on the package.
Why did I need fortifying? Because when I finally peeled years and years of burlap and horsehair and strange, lightweight material from the bottom of the chair, this is what I found.
My chairs, the family heirlooms that were made in London back in 1911, the table and chairs that every single other person in my family lusts after?
Those chairs were once a dartboard.
So much for some artisan toiling away in a basement.

This is one of the other chairs. They're a matched set. And actually I don't think they were so much a dartboard as some price wall in a mercantile or a grainery or something.

Once I figured that out, I figured the hell with documenting this; next thing you know I'll find out that they're actually the illegitimate children of faux Shaker and Danish Modern, and they only look old.
So I spent the next four hours laying down two-inch foam, covering it with batting, stapling the shit out of it, and then stapling the Nubuck over the whole mess, really really tightly.

I have to say, this was the best hundred bucks I have ever spent. Look how pretty! At first I worried that the seats were too poufy, but you know what? COMFORTABLE. I no longer feel like a penitent at Mass.

And look at that corner, will you? It's a thing of beauty. And they all turned out like this! Shocking! I don't actually have to leave the state!
Reupholstering: I highly recommend it. As long as you have plenty of wine and bandages.
*Both of these statements are completely untrue.


Blogger Denise said...

I have my grandmother's dining room table and chairs, brought from Kansas on a covered wagon (or a really old Chevy, not sure of the details), and my ex-husband redid the seats on ours, too. He, however, started taking apart the old covering and soon realized that he'd never be able to replicate all of the stuffing and technique, so he just stapled the new stuff over the old stuff, adding a new layer of batting (or whatever) over the old seat. Lazy, no?

Now you've made me think about the fact that I'm planning to give them away when I move. No one's going to love the poor, maltreated darlings and then my grandma's heart will break. Oh dear.

3:38 PM  
Blogger Cherry Red said...

The chairs look fabulous! COngrats to you on a super job!

I've always wanted to do something like this. I even bought a staple gun so I'd be ready when I found some old furniture at a yard sale or something. Thanks for the reminder.

Beautiful job, though, seriously. I love the color of the fabric you chose too.

9:44 PM  
Blogger Brooke said...

Thanks, fellas! Hey, you know, you two live in the same neck of the woods. Looks like one of you has some furniture that will eventually need a new home - and the other one is in the market. This could be a match made in heaven.

10:22 AM  
Blogger Eileen said...

Them are some mighty nice chairs. I love the color too. Those neighbors of yours are pretty lucky to place their ass upon those chairs- I hope they appreciate it.

3:24 PM  
Blogger inkgrrl said...

Ooh nice job - and love the spiral legs on that set. Good work!

6:45 AM  
Blogger inkgrrl said...

And omigod I have not had enough coffee... 30 neighbors for dessert? 'Splain us the awesome madness? I am totally intimidated by you right now.

6:47 AM  
Blogger Gingernut said...

Ooh, nice job on the chairs. It's amazing how you can live with something for years and years before twigging that it could use a facelift.

8:08 AM  
Blogger Jo said...

I have two of those exact same damn chairs! I reupholstered mine in slubby off-white cotton canvas. And yes, it is a pain in the patookie without wine. Or beer. Or large amounts of good drugs and chocolate.

The nice man who sold me mine (stripped, for cheap) told me that the legs are called "barley-twist".

4:04 AM  

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