Choosing Upholstery Details

Martha Stewart Living, September 2002

A sound frame is key to the style and comfort of upholstered furniture. That's why designers often counsel clients to resuscitate a sturdy but threadbare piece. Although a chair's ultimate shape is dictated by the pitch of the arms and curve of the back, you can choose from myriad upholstery techniques and tailoring details to alter its silhouette and change its look to suit a variety of decorating schemes.

Entirely revamping an armchair -- a worn one in the living room or a flea-market find -- is not a do-it-yourself project for most of us; you'll want to work with an expert upholsterer. After stripping the dated coverings from a pair of old hardwood frames that we found at auction, New York City upholsterer Luther Quintana copied them to make a second pair from kiln-dried maple. Building on this same frame, Quintana produced four distinct styles, which are pictured here.

While the fabric options are considerable, we limited him to a neutral, narrow-ribbed, cotton faille to play up each chair's contours and trim. Dressed in a skirt, this tufted chair emerges from the men's club to take a place in the bedroom or sitting room. The tailoring technique of waterfalling, or draping, smooths the chair's lines. With few seams to match, liberties can be taken with a pattern to make it fit almost any decor. The loose-back-and-seat style, with cushions, is a staple of English country houses but is also at home in a casual urban interior. The cushionless tightback-and-seat chair, at once sleek and sumptuous, complements contemporary settings such as a loft.

Back Details
Seat Details
Skirt Details
Ottoman Details

The button-tufted chair takes its cue from the leather-clad library standby, but fabric softens the traditional masculine look. Quintana mantled the back with extra horsehair and cotton batting to create the proper depth for tufting. Extra-wide fabric is required to fashion the generous pleats connecting the faille-covered buttons.

Quintana emphasized the frame's curved profile by padding its back minimally. He highlighted the seams with baseball stitching, matching the thread and fabric for a more refined look. The throw pillow is sized for lumbar support and decorated with twin bands of ribbon.

This cozy classic is most appropriate for a boudoir or a casual room in the country. Quintana created snug-fitting, T-shaped, down-filled cushions to bolster the back and seat. The chair back and its cushion are four inches deep. The seat cushion is slightly more plump.

The tight-back-and-seat easy chair is at once stripped down and elegant. The sleekest of our quartet, its snug upholstery is pieced together with all-but-invisible blind stitching, which enhances its seamless appearance. The back padding is filled out to five and one-half inches to achieve an overall grace of proportion. A throw pillow makes the deep seat even more comfortable.

Tufting on the seat matches that on the back and inner arms. Although tight seats such as this one are usually thin and firm, the tufting offers a bit of give. Like the other tight seat, this one is slightly rounded and protrudes beyond the apron, the chair's base.

The seat cushion used for the waterfall chair is filled with 100 percent goose down. A less costly alternative is a mix of down and feathers. The placement of the lowest pleat on the roll arm determines the thickness of the cushion; for a harmonious look, the cushion's baseball stitching aligns with this pleat.

This classic overstuffed armchair has a seat softened by a fluffed-up, boxy cushion. Down makes the seat and back cushions invitingly accommodating and provides the ideal spot to curl up with a book. The cushion's edges are accented with one-eighth-inch contrasting piping.

The attached seat exhibits an "English" edge, bellying slightly beyond the apron, to echo the roll of the padded arms. Like the back, the seat is firmly upholstered with just a bit of bounce provided by a top layer of down. Because the seat is so deep -- forty-eight inches -- Quintana added a Turkish pillow with piping and puckered corners.

A tufted chair typically has no skirt. To domesticate it, Quintana dropped a skirt with kick pleats lined in a contrasting hue at the corners and center front. All the chairs' skirts were tailored to end about one inch above the floor to prevent the hems from gathering dust.

The technically challenging process of waterfalling results in a streamlined effect. Here, a single piece of fabric wraps around the sides of the chair and the front of the apron and includes kick pleats at the front corners.

The tightly shirred skirt was fabricated and hand-sewn to the upholstered apron, thus offering the option of removing it for a more tailored look. The custom until recently was to anchor skirts halfway down the apron. Here, the flounced skirt with contrasting trim falls directly from the base of the seat for a rich, full effect.

The tight-back chair wears no skirt, showing off its turned-wood feet. These are stained deep walnut, to contrast with the light-colored fabric. Brass casters allow for ease of movement. The only ornamentation on the apron is a row of bronze nail heads in two sizes.

While these footstools echo the style of their companion armchairs, three of them were designed with additional ornamentation. The waterfall-style ottoman with a semi-attached cushion most closely matches its mate. The others have stiff tops, to stand in for a low table. The decorative details include a double row of studded nail heads; a full, tightly gathered skirt accented with a second, narrower ribbon; and closely spaced button-tufting.

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