Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Tale of Two Chairs

When I worked at the Big Firm, I never would've had the inclination to spend my precious free time (what little I had, anyway) refinishing or recovering old furniture. But, since joining the Energy Company, I find myself with both the time and -- quite unexpectedly -- the desire to do just that. I blame my new found DIY-ness in equal parts on Bravo's Top Design and Design*Sponge's Before & After weekly feature.

Last fall I began stalking Craigslist looking for a cheap chair or two to tackle. I figured if I bought the chair cheaply, I wouldn't be devastated if I ended up completely wrecking it. After a week or so of searching, I stumbled across an ad for two Mid Century Modern chairs ($30 each/$50 for the pair). I figured for that price, I could afford to mess up. Luckily for me, the girl selling the chairs lived only a few blocks away. Two days later, I had my chairs. Of course, it took a while to figure out what precisely to do with these chairs, but once I did, the process for each (although different) was pretty simple.

Chair #1

This first chair was a real find. While I lack the expertise to say for certain, it is at the very least an extremely close replica of the Saarinen Executive Arm Chair with wood legs. Even the original fabric (a tweedy bright blue that had faded to a dull green grossness) looked like the fabric these chairs were originally issued in. What's insane is that the licensed versions of this chair retails on DWR for over $1200 -- and I paid $30! When I saw this chair on Craigslist, I was so excited I was almost frantic, completely afraid the chair would get sold before I could get to it (or that the seller would come to her senses and relist for much, much more). Once I got the chair home, it was evident that the existing fabric was going to have to be replaced -- it was in horrible conditions. Additionally, one of the chair legs had lost part of its veneer and was pretty beat up. And so, in case I was dealing with the "real thing", I decided to let the professionals tackle the job and sent the chair out for a proper reupholstering (though I did attempt to refinish the legs myself first -- directions below). The fabric I used is called "Esha" by interior designer Annie Selke, which is available through CalicoCorners. Esha is also reversible, and I think the reverse of the chocolate/slate would make for a fun (and coordinating) pillow.

The Refinishing Process:

Refinishing is actually a lot like painting and really no more difficult. I first removed the chair legs (which were simply bolted to the bottom of the chair). I then sanded down each leg with medium-grit sandpaper to remove the original finish as well as smooth out all the nicks and dents that are inevitable in a vintage piece. Sanding the legs down by hand is definitely a tedious -- and messy -- process. I would recommend sanding outside and, especially if you're working with a piece that was painted or varnished, wearing a mask. Once the legs were sanded, I cleaned them off with a damp rag (you don't want any grit remaining when you start staining). For stain, I used Minwax in Red Mahogany (to coordinate with my Salvation Army desk), which I picked up at Home Depot. I chose a darker stain than the original finish because the legs were in such bad shape. Minwax Polyshades combine polyurethane and stain in one step, but you could obviously go with just a stain if you don't want the top coat. To stain the legs, I used a small paintbrush. The key to staining is to coat the wood very lightly -- you don't want to just slop the stuff on as you'll be left with inevitable drips and an uneven finish. Minwax recommends doing two separate coats, and using a fine-grade sanding paper in between coats, to get the best finish. I actually ended up just doing one coat and was happy with the result.

I am sure some purists will bemoan my decision to go with a print and not simply match the original fabric, but ultimately I decided to go with what I like. I don't see any real harm in that since the piece can always be recovered later and the original fabric was unsalvageable. Of course, having a piece professionally reupholstered or refinished can be expensive, but in this case, I got the chair so cheaply that even when including the cost of fabric (4 yards) and the cost of reupholstery (almost $200), I am still coming in far below its true value.

For the story of Chair #2, please click on "Read More" below.


Since chair #2 was a simpler shape than #1 -- and probably worth a whole lot less -- I decided to tackle the reupholstering myself. First though I sanded and stained the frame (following the general instructions above) with my husband's help over the course of a weekend and probably 3 or 4 hours. The fabric for this chair is called "Pinecone" and I scored it on sale at Pottery Barn. I bought two yards to be safe, but probably could've made do with only 1 yard. Total cost (including stain) came to about $60 for this chair. Chair #2 now sits happily next to the windows in my study, overlooking the backyard.


Reupholstering a chair is a lot like gift wrapping -- only with fabric and a staple gun instead of paper and tape. Definitely nothing to be intimidated by. I first unscrewed the seat and backrest from the frame with a screwdriver. I decided to just put the new fabric directly on top of the original but before recovering, I Febreezed the old fabric and let it air out overnight to eliminate any musty odors. If the original fabric is particularly nasty or the stuffing is worn out, you're going to want to remove the original fabric first and/or re-stuff. I find a flat head screw driver is the best tool to remove old staples. Once the old fabric is off, you can fluff up the seat with a new layer of stuffing (available at most craft or sewing stores).

Using the seat cushion as a guide, I cut out the necessary fabric, making sure to allow several inches of overlay on all sides. Using a staple gun, I then began stapling the new fabric to the underside of the seat -- starting in the center point on one side and then the center point on the opposite side ensures a snug fit. Remember to pull the fabric as tautly as possible as you work. From there, continue stapling to the corners, making sure to flip the seat cushion over periodically to check for any folds or creases in the fabric.

For the backrest, I followed a similar pattern but since the underside of the backrest would be visible, I folded over the edge of the fabric before stapling it to create a clean finish. Fortunately the sides of the backrest were going to be hidden by the wooden frame, so I was able to hide most of the staples there. For those few visible staples on the underside, I went back and dabbed a bit of White-out on them to help them blend in with the fabric. If you're working with a darker fabric, a sharpie would do the trick as well.

I am really happy with how both chairs turned out -- they both add a more personal touch to my home. Plus, every time I look at them I feel a sense of pride for finding two ugly chairs most folks would've just dumped and made them work for my home. And of course there's the satisfaction that -- with respect to Chair #1 anyway -- I got a really amazing deal on a piece of design history. If anyone else has some repurposing/reupholstering stories they'd like to share, please let me know. I'd love to hear all about it.


Kristina at The Purple Pea said...

These look fantastic!! Don't you just love it when you find such a good deal? Great weekend project and I adore the fabrics!

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