You inherited a beautiful late-19th-century British settee. The frame is gorgeous. The fabric? Not so. What should you do? As an interior designer and antiques dealer, I’ve seen this scenario dozens of times. Here’s how I advise clients who wish to update their beloved pieces:
First, examine the bones of the piece. The frame is the heart and soul of the chair, settee, bench, or any other piece. A new fabric will not help if the splay of a leg or the arch of the back does not speak to you. Be sure to look past your grandmother’s favorite floral: Do you still love that chair?
If so, consider whether the upholstery is original and salvageable. If it is, you’ll want to consider if it adds value to the piece or tells a bit of the piece’s story. Many chairs that are centuries or even just decades old will come to us without a trace of original upholstery. Why? Wood tends to outlast textiles, and fashions are fickle. Long before your heirloom was an heirloom, someone might have wanted to swap era-appropriate damask for an updated linen. But if you suspect your antique has original fabric, do some research and show it to an expert, who can help you decide if the fabric is historically important and if it enhances the value of the piece. Experts can be found through national non-profit trade organizations such as the Antiques Dealers’ Association of America, and many states or regions will have similar, local associations that list furniture experts in your area. Fine art auction houses almost always have furniture experts on staff, and even if you do not have plans to sell your piece, these experts can be hugely helpful. Most dealers in this industry are more than happy to advise on a piece, as most of us are highly passionate about our field and love seeing new pieces.
But let’s say that your grandma’s settee is covered in a 1960s vinyl that makes you cringe. Now’s the time to consult with a professional upholsterer. Find someone with experience in antique or vintage pieces—a boat and automotive upholsterer will not do for this project. (A great place for a recommendation is your local antiques dealer or interior designer, as they have likely learned from hard experience who does great antique work. You can also contact the Upholsterer’s Association of North America or the American Society of Interior Designers for more experts in your area.) It is best if the upholsterer has experience with pieces from the same general time period as yours, ensuring your piece will be restored to its original upholstered shape and will maintain the true aesthetic of the period. Ask for photos of past projects.
Be sure you convey to the upholsterer that you want to maintain as much of the original “insides” of the piece as possible. Mid-century pieces will be filled with synthetic foam; this modern filler breaks down with excessive kid jumping or pet sprawling and usually requires replacement. Older pieces are often filled with horse-hair (sometimes pig or goat hair), or down and feathers. These natural materials are quite resilient and can often be re-used when supplemented with new down or synthetic batting. Whenever possible, it is best to maintain existing fill and preserve the history of the piece.
And now, of course, you’ve reached the real challenge: finding a fabric that truly suits an antique or vintage piece. Begin your search at the library or a museum if you want to restore your piece with historically appropriate fabric. (If you’re not close to a high-quality museum, you can use famous museums’ websites to search for similar pieces to yours. We’re especially fond of The Met, The Getty, Victoria and Albert, or Cooper Hewitt’s sites.)
Most of my clients want to make a chair or sofa more useable in their contemporary home, where they are mixing and matching periods and styles, so they opt for more modern fabrics. Here’s a trick to choosing the right ones: First look to the style in which the piece was original created. If you’re working with a late-Victorian chair from the Aesthetic Movement, it doesn’t have to upholstered in a Victorian floral or velvet—but you might find inspiration in the Aesthetics’ obsession with the Orient. Perhaps you’ll discover a black-and-whtie Asian lattice print that nods to the chair’s history ever so subtly. If the chair’s history fails to inspire, look to the shape or lines of the piece: Does it have sinuous lines or feminine rounded edges, or is it more bold, stout, and angular? You might consider mimicking the overall shape or a carved detail in a contemporary fabric pattern.
And one more (unusual) bit of advice: I often see human traits in chairs, benches, and settees. This one is sophisticated; that one is adorable. Get to know the piece and its every quirk, and you’ll find true inspiration for its new frock.