After Eric Dickman’s parents passed away, his memories of the two in their Georgetown home lingered.
“The front door opened into the living room,” recalls Dickman, who currently resides in Federal Hill, “[and] when I came into the house, my mother and father were always right there, sitting in their twin wingback chairs.” So when he and his wife, Karen, began to rehab the residence, he resisted his initial impulse to clear stuff out and gut the place, in favor of preserving memories.
To help, he turned to Baltimore interior designer Amanda Austin, who helped him go through the houseful of furniture, cataloging each piece, and deciding what was worth saving. “Left to his own devices,” says Austin, her client “might have left everything out by the side of the road.”
Those two chairs, in spite of their ragged appearance and outdated upholstery, were solid, well-made, and worth saving. “I’m a big believer in repurposing,” says Austin. While the chairs were “old and tired,” she says, “they were classic, and had great potential.”
She took the Dickmans shopping for fabric, and they chose a soft grey mohair to re-cover the pieces. Now, the two chairs—decorated with small throw pillows in an off-white, gray, and yellow Ikat-like pattern—are in the dining room, blending beautifully with the soft palate of taupe and cream, with vivid yellow highlights.
Austin also worked with Dickman to reupholster a channel-back chair that had belonged to his parents, smoothing out the ridged pattern on the back and lacquering the wooden arms and legs in white. The bold geometric print on the repurposed bedroom chair matches throw pillows on the bed. The room also has a brightly upholstered vanity stool in shades of lavender and cranberry that matches both the pillows and window treatments.
Reupholstering is a way to give furniture new life while at the same time keeping family heirlooms in the family—and out of the landfill. (There’s more than 8 million tons of furniture finding its way into solid-waste dumps each year.)
Even so, the good turn of recycling motivates only a small percentage of the clientele at Fox Upholstery, says owner Vladimir Fox. Mostly, he says, “it’s a luxury business.” About 95 percent of the work at his Pikesville studio comes through interior designers, including those working on restaurants. He’s responsible for the fabric walls at Aldo’s and has done projects for Kali’s Restaurant Group—including the serpentine banquettes at Meli, with their mid-century-inspired floral patterned fabric. Another client has been high-end restaurant group Foreman Wolf: Fox has worked with designer Patrick Sutton on Cinghiale and the renovation of Charleston. And twice now, says Fox, he’s reupholstered the four oversized couches from the sunken lounge area at Foreman Wolf’s Pazo, a feat he accomplished without any disruption to the restaurant’s business. “The window for the job was 6 a.m. to 4 p.m.,” he says. Each day, he’d pick up one sofa and completely re-cover it, returning it to its place before happy hour. “They’re deep, too,” he says, “with plenty of throw pillows.”
Like Fox, Alan Ibello has done his share of quick turnarounds. He recently reupholstered a chair for the HBO series House of Cards—twice in one day. The production designers “liked the shape of the chair and the way it fit in the set,” he recalls, but couldn’t make up their minds on the fabric. “We actually re-covered it in a few hours.”
Ibello says he got his foot in the door with the film industry when he did “just about every piece you see” in the Barry Levinson film Avalon.
Ibello’s grandfather started the business after moving to Baltimore from Italy in the 1940s. These days, along with work for film designers, Ibello says he’s doing a lot of custom work in homes. Projects in his Remington shop include breakfast nooks that resemble restaurant booths with upholstered benches, and “Pee-wee Herman-style” sofas for home-theater rooms.
Most of Ibello’s work also comes through interior designers—he currently subcontracts with about 40—though, occasionally, a customer will come in off the street. “Sometimes they have a chair they love that fits in a spot in their house, or it’s been in the family for a long time,” he says. Ibello will give them an honest appraisal of the cost-effectiveness of reupholstering the piece. A woman once brought in a wing chair that she’d found next to a dumpster. “It was probably 50 or 60 years old,” he says. “The material was all shredded and the foam poured out like sand.” But underneath, he found the tell-tale workmanship of a fine piece of furniture. Another landfill candidate rescued.
The insides of a piece of furniture can tell volumes about its history and its value, says Charlene O’Malley, owner of C. H. O’Malley Antiques in Mt. Washington. In an antique that is 100 years old or close to it, it’s usually the frame and stuffing, not the fabric, that matter. “Most of the time, the fabric has been changed at least once,” she points out. In fact, it’s rare to find a “period antique” piece (200 years or older) with its original cladding intact. A good upholsterer will be able to fix the insides, retying metal springs and replacing cotton batting, while not over-stuffing a chair or sofa—as the current trends may dictate—but keeping its original shape and profile.
Maintaining the integrity of an antique may also mean choosing a new fabric that is appropriate for the period—like a Chippendale sofa she recently recovered with damask. This is especially true if the piece is meant to be displayed as an antique, says O’Malley, who is on the board of the Friends of the American Wing at The Baltimore Museum of Art. “We often do document [research] so that we know we’re doing the right thing,” she says. Sometimes, that research is done simply by removing layers of fabric until the scraps of the original are revealed.
“A lot of people come to me and ask, ‘Should I restore this?’” O’Malley says. “I start by asking them, ‘What does it mean to you?’ If it’s their grandmother’s and they fix it up, they’ll have it for another 40 years, or longer.” And what about the value of this stuff? “Sometimes, the things people believe are valuable in their homes are not,” she says. “Other times, there are treasures they didn’t even know about.” Ultimately, she points out, “everything has value,” whether it’s real monetary value, or because it evokes fond memories. The one piece of advice she gives in these cases: “If it means something, if it has value to you, if you want to give it to your kids, then keep it.”
For Eric Dickman, the value of his parents’ furniture is multi-layered. He acknowledges that he and his wife could have bought new chairs, but “knowing the previous life” of the chairs, he says, “preserves the connection, and now they’re suited to our taste.”