Looks can be deceiving, especially when you’re talking about vintage furniture. “But don’t let crumbling foam turn you away,” says Chairloom founder Molly Andrews Burke. “The guts of a piece don’t really matter.” Burke and her custom furniture and upholstery shop in the Philadelphia suburb of Ardmore are known for reimagining character-rich but worn antique pieces by recovering them in bold, patterned fabrics. You can see a selection of her beautiful chairs and ottomans in designer Rebecca Atwood’s brand-new SoHo boutique.
When Burke hits a thrift shop or estate sales, she looks for a few key attributes that signal a piece is well-made. “The quality of a piece has less to do with its shape than with how it’s made,” she says. You always want to check out how the frame is joined, but that’s not the only indicator. Carved legs or arms are another, since “any kind of intricate carving gives a piece value,” says Burke. The same goes for curved legs and backs. Rare materials, like Lucite, and pieces with unusual shapes are always good finds. And if you see something with beautiful-but-worn fabric, such as silk, or a feather cushion, take a closer look. “Expensive materials like those would only be used on a high-quality frame,” she explains.
Beyond those general parameters, let your eye—and nostalgia—guide you. “Familiar things are familiar for a reason,” Burke says. If it feels special now, you’ll really love it after you freshen it up.
Here are three examples of Burke’s best work, before and after.
Furniture Transformation #1: Blue Dining Chairs
Burke found these beauties at a house sale. “Someone had begun a neutral reupholstery job on them, but had stopped midway,” she says. “They are classic antiques and not easy to find, so I knew I wanted them.” She had them refinished in Benjamin Moore Newburyport Blue paint and two coordinating fabrics from Thibault.
Furniture Transformation #2: Curvy Settee
This bare settee had landed at fellow Philadelphia reupholstery shop Wild Chairy. “The shape, lines, and curves of this piece are so unusual, I knew it would find a great new home—and it did!” Burke says. All the frame needed were small repairs to the wood and a coat of matte oil finish. Its new owners decided on a Schumacher exotic butterfly print for the upholstery that worked especially nicely. “The butterflies and flowers accentuate the shape and artistic value of the piece,” adds Burke.
Furniture Transformation #3: Slipper Chairs
A client of Burke’s had inherited this “very blah” pair of chairs. Two bold Pinder fabrics bring them to life. “The large scale of the pattern is an unexpected choice, and I think that’s what creates the wow factor,” says Burke.