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A Classic's New Curve: Vintage Chairs

Martha Stewart Living, August 2007

In the early 1830s, Vienna-based cabinetmaker Michael Thonet figured out how to curve layers of flat wood into elaborate chairs and tables that he could mass produce. The sinuous creations caused quite a stir, first in Austria and then around the world. By 1904, his firm, Thonet Brothers, was making more than a million "Bentwoods" a year, from desk chairs to dining tables, footstools to flower stands. That's not counting the knockoffs from Thonet's many imitators, who swooped in once his patent was lifted in 1869. Bentwood production is still prolific today.

As a result, it's difficult to visit a salvage store or an antiques market without bumping into a few Bentwoods. While nineteenth-century originals in mint condition are veritable museum pieces, many of the more common designs are worse for wear, with rickety frames and ripped cane seating. But one man's trash is another man's treasure, as it is for Fritz Karch, collecting editorial director at Martha Stewart Living. "They're the neglected beauties at any flea market," he says.

Taken by Bentwoods' understated elegance, not to mention their bargain prices, Karch decided to treat the castoffs as building blocks for innovative new creations. The projects that follow are the results of that inspiration. They range in scale and skill level, from refinishing a single chair to crafting a daybed from reclaimed parts. Choose the one that's right for you, or adapt the concept to your needs. Karch will applaud your ingenuity, and Thonet undoubtedly would as well.

 

Vinatage Chair Projects:

Separate but Similar

Cafe chairs are the most recognizable Bentwood pieces."But it's amazing how different they look when they're not the traditional ebony," Fritz Karch says. The repainted chair, opposite, makes the point. Chairs were manufactured in dozens of designs, so it's rare to find a matching set. Yet even a disparate bunch, below, looks harmonious around a table, once the chairs have been given a unifying color and matching cushions.

You'll need: 1 or more chairs, sandpaper, primer, paint, and brushes.

Cafe Chair How-To

1. Prep surfaces with sandpaper,and apply primer and top coats.

2. Sew or custom-order cushions.

How to Make the Cafe Chair Cushion

1. Make a template of seat out of kraft paper (if there's a lip around the perimeter of the seat, the template should fit inside it).

2. Using template, cut fabric for bottom of cushion, adding a 1/2-inch seam allowance.

3. For top of cushion, cut four 10-inch squares on the bias (the stripes should run diagonally across each square). Sew the 4 squares together so that their stripes align at each seam, forming a diamond pattern. Using template, cut a circle from fabric, adding a 1/2-inch seam allowance.

4. Measure circumference of template, add 1 inch, and cut piping using this measurement. Sew piping to bottom cushion fabric, right side up, lining up the piping's seam allowance with edge of fabric.

5. Sew top and bottom fabric pieces together, right sides facing and 1/2 inch in from the edge. Leave a 5-inch opening at back of case.

6. Turn cushion case right side out.

7. Using template, cut 1/2-inch-thick cotton batting to fit; insert into opening, and hand-stitch closed.

All Occasions

Some Bentwood pieces are beyond repair, but that doesn't mean their parts can't be salvaged. The interior rails of three beleaguered bistro chairs form the legs of this petite side table, which has been painted a mellow shade of yellow. The tabletop is cut from a sheet of fiberboard, but you could also reuse the seat from a chair, provided it's made of solid wood and not caned.

You will need: 3 chairs, 3/4-inch-thick medium-density fiberboard (MDF), a router or sandpaper, a sheet of 3/4-inch thick poplar, screws, wood putty, primer, paint, and brushes.

How-To

1. Remove the interior rail from 3 chair frames.

2. Measure and cut a 16-inch round tabletop out of the MDF. Round off its edges with a router or sandpaper.

3. Measure and cut a 6-inch disk out of the poplar.

4. Center the disk on the bottom of tabletop, and attach it with 3 screws.

5. Space legs evenly around the disk. Screw legs to the disk and to each other. Countersink screws between legs, and fill holes with wood putty.

6. Prep surfaces with sandpaper, and apply primer and top coats.


End Games

These squat geometric cubes were originally designed as stools. But if the caned seat is shot, why not replace it with a round piece of medium-density fiberboard (MDF) and turn the cube into a low-slung end table? As with much Bentwood furniture, the piece's spare, linear design has an almost transparent quality that's perfect for contemporary interiors.

If you wrap the top in waterproof fabric and refinish the frame with exterior paint, the table will be suitable for the outdoors, too.

You'll need: a stool, kraft paper, 3/4-inch-thick MDF, waterproof fabric, spray adhesive, a craft knife, sandpaper, primer, paint, brushes, and screws.

How-To

1. Remove old seat base.

2. Make template for new tabletop by tracing old seat onto kraft paper.

3. Using template, cut new tabletop out of MDF.

4. Measure and cut a band of fabric to wrap around edge of tabletop; affix with spray adhesive.

5. Cut a piece of fabric that's a few inches larger than tabletop on all sides; affix with spray adhesive.

6. Turn over the tabletop and carefully trim excess fabric with craft knife.

7. Prep surfaces with sandpaper, and apply primer and top coats.

8. Screw tabletop to frame, making use of existing holes.


Sitting Pretty

Three Bentwoods are better than one, especially when they combine to form a hall bench. This trio of unusual chairs (their stirrup-shaped seats were designed to fit together under diminutive ice-cream-parlor tables) was discovered at a flea market. Linked together, they create an elegant bench with a curvy silhouette.

You'll need: 3 or more chairs, kraft paper, 1/2-inch-thick MDF, screws, sandpaper, primer, paint, and brushes.

How-To

1. If necessary, remove damaged seats from 3 chairs, and place side by side.

2. Make template for bench platform out of kraft paper, tracing contours of seats (we rounded the front of ours slightly to create more surface area).

3. Using template, cut platform out of MDF.

4. Screw platform to chair frames. (Note: If bench feels wobbly, screw the chairs together at their frames.)

5. Prep surfaces with sandpaper, and apply primer and top coats.

6. Sew or custom-order cushion.

How to Make the Hall Bench Cushion

1. Make a template of platform out of kraft paper.

2. Using template, cut fabric for top and bottom of cushion, adding a 1/2-inch seam allowance.

3. Measure perimeter of template, add 1 inch, and cut piping for top and bottom edges using this measurement.

4. Using the same measurement, cut a 2 1/2-inch-wide strip of fabric to size (you may need to piece several strips together). Sew strip ends together, right sides facing and 1/2 inch from edge, to create loop.

5. Sew piping to top and bottom fabric pieces, right sides up, lining up the piping's seam allowance with fabric edges (start at back of the cushion to conceal the seam).

6. Sew bottom fabric to side loop, right sides together and 1/2 inch from the edge.

7. Sew top fabric to side loop, right sides facing and 1/2 inch from the edge. Leave an 18-inch opening at back of cushion.

8. Turn cushion case right side out.

9. Using template, cut 1 1/2-inch-thick cotton batting to fit; insert into opening, and hand-stitch closed.


Tall and Leggy

This striking demilune table captures both the elegance and the economy of Bentwood furniture, highlighting the crest rail, the ingenious single piece of wood that acts as the main structural support on most chairs.

You will need: the crest rails from a pair of matching chairs and 2 side braces (for an example of the cafe chair we took apart, turn to page 148), 3/4-inch-thick MDF, screws, wood putty, sandpaper, primer, paint, brushes, and L-shaped brackets.

How-To

1. Remove the crest rails from 2 chair backs and a pair of side braces.

2. Measure and cut demilune tabletop out of MDF.

3. Measure and cut a smaller half-moon apron from the same MDF. Screw it to the tabletop.

4. Screw rails and braces to apron and to each other, as shown. Countersink visible screws; fill holes with putty.

5. Prep surfaces with sandpaper. Apply primer and top coats. 6 Let paint


Sleeping Beauty

This large-scale project calls for four chairs of equally grand proportion. Side by side, each pair is nearly as wide as a twin bed, providing ample room for rest and relaxation. A foam mattress and plenty of pillows make the daybed even more comfortable. The restrained lines of these chairs are representative of twentieth-century Bentwood, showing the evolution from Thonet's more fanciful curvilinear designs. We found them online, another good source for Bentwoods.

You will need: 4 chairs, kraft paper, 3/4-inch-thick birch plywood, one-by-two stock lumber, screws, sandpaper, primer, paint, and brushes.

How-To

1. Remove seats from 4 chairs, and place a pair side by side at "foot" and "head" positions of daybed (our chair backs are 70 inches apart).

2. Make template for bed platform out of kraft paper, tracing contours of seats.

3. Using template, cut platform out of plywood.

4. Cut 2 supports for the platform out of one-by-two. Screw supports to both sides of the seat frames (you may need to cut an angle in the ends of the supports).

5. Screw platform to chair frames.

6. Prep surfaces with sandpaper, and apply primer and top coats.

7. Sew or custom-order cushions for platform and bolsters.

How to Make the Daybed Mattress

1. Make a template of platform out of kraft paper (you can also reuse the template from the daybed how-to).

2. Using template, cut fabric for top and bottom of cushion, adding a 1/2-inch seam allowance.

3. Measure perimeter of template, add 1 inch, and cut a 7-inch-wide strip using this measurement (you may need to piece several strips together).

4. Sew bottom fabric to loop, right sides facing and 1/2 inch from the edge.

5. Sew top fabric to loop, right sides facing and 1/2 inch from the edge; leave a 36-inch opening at back of cushion.

6. Turn cushion case right side out.

7. Using template, cut a piece of 6-inch-thick foam to size (you can ask an upholstery supplier to cut it for you). Insert into opening, and hand-stitch closed.

How to make the Daybed Bolsters

1. Determine the diameter of pillow ends, and cut a piece of fabric, adding a 1/2-inch seam allowance. (If you want your pillow ends to have the same diamond pattern as our cafe chair cushions, follow step 3 from that how-to.)

2. Measure the circumference of the pillow ends, and add 1 inch. Cut a rectangle of fabric using this measurement on 2 sides and equal to the desired length of the pillow on the other 2 sides.

3. Sew piping around pillow ends, right sides up, lining up the piping's seam allowance with fabric edges.

4. Sew the 2 long sides of the fabric together to create a tube, right sides facing and 1/2 inch from the edge. Leave an opening large enough to insert pillow stuffing.

5. Sew pillow ends to pillow body, right sides facing and 1/2 inch from edge.

6. Turn pillowcase right side out.

7. Insert pillow stuffing into the opening, and hand-stitch closed.

How to Make the Daybed Square Pillows

1. Cut 2 squares of fabric to the desired size of pillow, adding a 1/2-inch seam allowance.

2. Sew right sides together, 1/2 inch from the edge; leave an opening on one side large enough to insert pillow stuffing.

3. Turn pillowcase right side out.

4. Insert pillow stuffing into opening, and hand-stitch closed.

Sources
Fabric for cafe chair cushions: Lora in Amber (OR-2042-0618), by Watkins & Fonthill, from Stark Fabric, 212-355-7186 or starkfabric.com (to the trade only).
Fabric for hall bench seat cushion: Fusili in Straw, from Silk Trading, 212-966-5464 or silktrading.com.
Fabric for daybed mattress: Magee Stripe from the Hampton Collection in Butterscotch/Beige (HW-2012-KJ); fabric for daybed bottom bolster pillows: Noyack Stripe from the Hampton Collection in Wheat/Off-White (HW-2003-KH); and fabric for daybed small square throw pillow: Meadowmere Ticking from the Hampton Collection in Khaki/Tan (HW-2011-TC); from Hinson & Co., 212-475-4100 (to the trade only).
Fabric for daybed top bolster pillows: similar Oxford Stripe, from Ian Mankin, ianmankin.com (to the trade only).
Fabric for daybed large square throw pillow: Delphina II in Chicory (#910045-03), from Rogers & Goffigon, 212-888-3242 (to the trade only).