Next time you put your bottom on a chair – and if you haven’t got anything more important to think about – you might want to consider the changes in chairs through the centuries. Because, let’s face it, they’ve been around for as long as people have needed to take the weight off their feet.

One of the projects on my AMUSF (Association of Master Upholsterers & Soft Furnishers) training course was ‘The History of upholstery’ but please don’t panic, I’m only going to touch on a few points. Whilst the definition of a chair is ‘a practical, portable piece of furniture, to support and provide comfort’, you may agree there are those we’ve all sat on which do neither of those things.

The early Greeks, who knew a thing or two, tended to use the chair as a temporary resting place, preferring to sit at a reclining angle with couches, beds and divans generally used for longer periods – as I said, the Greeks knew a thing or two.

African tribes used seating as a status symbol, (see above) so only chiefs and elders benefitted. These stools were elaborately decorated with detailed carvings and gold, shells or beading to reflect the heritage of the village and the high status of the sitter.

Brass-clad royal stool illustrating ancient Ashanti proverb, ‘Food is for the man who earns it, not for the hungry man.’ Ghana, West Africa.

At a beautifully curated exhibition I recently attended, they had a timeline of upholstery going much further back than I had seen before; the first documented upholsterer, it seems, was a Mr Henry le Uphelder who pursued his craft in 1258.   

To me, the le suggests a French origin while Uphelder sounds Dutch or Flemish. On a hunch, I checked that out and found the word was indeed, *Old Frisian, Middle Dutch – which delighted me because of my Dutch heritage.  Henry, I like to think, arrived here from France, with his Dutch kith and kin to set up business and practise his craft. He would probably have used locally made available wood frames, padding them with wool or straw or sawdust and a covering of leather or sheepskin, creating seating that was practical, functional and most importantly, comfortable for the rear end of his customers. He and those who followed him must have been successful because almost a century later, in 1346, English upholsterers petitioned the King for protection against unfair competition from France.

Indeed, the City of London, established Craft Guilds to promote excellence in the trades, with upholsterers being governed by the now Worshipful Company of Upholders who can trace their heritage back to 1360, these early Guilds were effectively the first quality controllers of upholstery and by 1474 they had the authority to search and seize ‘All wares in the City pertaining to the Craft that were insufficiently or not truly made’ – a rather early Trading Standards.  

Flock and Feathers – The Worshipful Company of Upholders of the City of London

These early upholstery craftsmen were variously known as Upheldere, Uphouldesterr, or Upholder and (noted in 1356) produced a wide scope of goods including armour, feather beds and shoe horns.  Like the heading, I try to uphold this traditional craft for a modern world. 

*Uphold (v.) c. 1200, “support, sustain,” from up (adv.) + hold (v.). Similar formation in Old Frisian upholda, Middle Dutch ophouden, German aufhalten.

With thanks to https://upholders.co.uk

“Whatever you have in your home, think first of the walls.”

William Morris, English craftsman, poet, lecturer on the decorative arts and an early Socialist, is possibly best known by most of us as a multi-talented and iconic designer, creating everything from fabrics to furniture, wallpaper to stained glass.

Another often used, famous Morris quote is ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’  Although he was talking about the aesthetic of products and design, it’s not a bad rule to work to regardless.

He was, and still is, a major influence in the design world, although like so many creative geniuses he definitely veered towards the temperamental –apparently it wasn’t unheard of for him to open the nearest window and chuck out his dinner if he wasn’t best pleased with the way it had been prepared or presented.

It was in his childhood, at the family home near Epping Forest that his life-long love of nature, so evident in his designs, began. He was endlessly fascinated by the colours and intricacy of plants, flowers and birds.  The first of his wallpapers, Trellis, was designed in 1862, inspired by his then home, The Red House in Kent.

William Morris Trellis Wallpaper.  Images V&A Museum

Morris’s colours were wonderfully imaginative and memorable; the stunning, stand-out greens a feature of his early wallpapers were drop dead gorgeous – in more ways than one! Arsenic was widely used in the 19th century and due to the fact it produced such a glorious green, it became popular for all sorts of uses, including house paints and wallpaper.   

Unfortunately, arsenic in wallpapers and paints, combined with the damp walls on which they were placed, had a tendency to produce a toxic vapour. This was eventually blamed for numerous maladies and deaths and certainly wasn’t what anybody would have had in mind when they planned to liven up a living room! As awareness of the dangers became more widely known, Morris and Co were forced to find alternatives, and it was of prime importance that this was made this clear to their customers, hence the disclaimer on the cover of their stand book  (albeit not that clear as a warning!)

Cover of Morris & Co. Stand Book.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Coming back to the present day, you may remember being firmly ordered to ‘Chuck out your Chintz’ a few years ago by one large retailer.  That certainly hasn’t happened, and in fact we’re bringing it back by the spade-full; lusciously big florals, deep dark colours, insects and extravagantly oversized animals are perennially popular in bright colours and modern neutrals.  The new Morris & Co range has been developed from the original print blocks; they are light and airy but still have this wonderful, blowsy feel. 

Morris & Co
Pure North Collection

Windows of Opportunity

How we live today has changed dramatically over the centuries – or has it? Home has always meant shelter, warmth and security. Cave or cottage, yurt or penthouse, all share common factors, one of which is we like to make them as comfortable as possible. How that’s achieved depends on income, available materials and current taste trends. For example, whilst a sabre-tooth tiger skin might have been highly desirable for keeping draughts out and made a cave cosy in Neanderthal times, it wouldn’t be welcome today!

But we do owe history a debt.  The Roman blinds we have today, evolved from the Romans use of overhead canopies, the folds of which were let down to provide highly effective shading, just as they do now.

Venetian blinds on the other hand, were actually invented in Persia. The concept was taken from there by Venetian traders, who not only pinched a great idea but were then cheeky enough to name it after themselves. When some of them later moved to settle in France, they took the concept with them, successfully creating, selling and popularising them.

Nowadays there’s not much we can’t do with blinds to create something completely unique. We can laminate most fabrics or can screen print with images of your choice.  Last year, together with Amanda from Brunswick Press, we printed a blind with saucy seaside postcards which made a wonderful room feature.  Alternatively, we can mix the slat colours in Venetian or vertical blinds to create a stunning mix of colours or tonal shading.

Virtually silent, fully automated blinds, linked to your phone or home automation systems are a pure delight for the tech lovers amongst us and indeed highly practical for hard-to-reach high windows or stairwells.

Shutters are another popular current trend, but aren’t suitable for every window. Whilst they are designed to block strong sunlight, they can darken a room too much.

If you’re more of a curtain person but find yourself working to a budget – and who isn’t nowadays! – there are a variety of ways to update and refresh what you currently have.

There’s such a wide range of linings, interlinings and trims you’ll find yourself spoilt for choice. Recently I re-made some Laura Ashley curtains which were looking a little dated and tired, although the fabric was still in fine condition. The issue was that all the furniture and soft furnishings in the room had been designed to co-ordinate with those curtains and the client still loved the fabric.  

But there are always solutions. I ripped off the old tape heading, popped in insulating blackout interlining, new lining and made some buttons to go at the bottom of the new hand-worked triple pleat. A whole new look for the curtains and one very relieved client. If you have a house move on the horizon, you’ll know only too well how the expenses mount up, and different size windows might make you think you have to start from scratch again, but that’s not necessarily the case. Changing the pole or track, adding a pelmet for height can work wonders and save you a great deal of money at the just the time you most need to.

Every Chair is Different

My career as an upholsterer began when I was creating interiors for high-end exclusive rentals. I was lucky enough to get to know and work with a skilled lady whose speed, dexterity and sheer enthusiasm for her craft, rekindled my own love of fabric and I thought, how wonderful to produce something that pleases the maker, delights the user and is enjoyed for years to come. I thought, I’d love to do that. Then I thought, why shouldn’t I? So, I did, hence where I am today!

1950’s wood frame chair in original fabric in the middle of the street

Of course, it wasn’t quite as instant as that – skills don’t arrive fully fledged. I trained under the extremely strict scrutiny of the AMUSF (Association of Master Upholsterers and Soft Furnishers) and can feel my tutor still sitting on my shoulder, eyeballing every job I do, ensuring every piece is as perfect as it can possibly be, because, as we know, nobody welcomes a wonky seat or a saggy bottom.

Every chair is different and holds its own secrets. From the outside you can’t necessarily tell what you’ll find inside – is the frame damaged or woodwormed? Is it a good solid wood or made, far more dubiously, from an old orange crate? Are there traces of previous owners – lost name tags, foreign coins, sweet wrappers or long abandoned tiny toys?

Stylist picture of an old and very dusty Bergère chair

The art of the early upholsterers or upholders as they were called then, can be traced back to the beginning of the guilds when the artisans practised the intricacies of their trade, and made sure to keep their secrets to themselves, ensuring that how they achieved their results was a mystery to anyone else.  I love the idea of craft of any kind being mysterious to outsiders; a touch of alchemy, creating something from scratch or bringing something back to even better than its original state.

I think the craft of upholstery, even now in our throw-away society, is still something that’s relished and cherished and a good chair, sofa or stool frame will last through subsequent professional upholsters, as will the choice of the right fabric. It’s all about recycling, durability and perhaps some historical mystery – I’m proud to be a part of that.

It’s a Mystery

A visit to the excellent Second Sitters exhibition at the Geffrye Museum in London found me coming away as ‘a woman of mystery’.   Not only was this very satisfying but it gave a whole new meaning to my trade, craft and business.  I often talk about an upholsterer being previously known as an ‘upholder’ and have enjoyed the play on words to uphold the traditions of the craft; however now I have a new inscrutability to add to the trade.   Searching for the etymology of Mystery reveals the common usages of enigma, ambiguity and thriller to finally revealing ‘a handicraft or trade, especially when referred to in indentures (apprenticeships)’.   I have always loved the idea that these early craftsmen were interior designers and it was great to read and see that their remit wasn’t limited to the more common usage of upholstery now as just relating to the sofa and chair.

Definition of mystery

Their timeline traced upholstery back to 1258 with Henry le Uphelder being the first mention of a member of the trade.  I hadn’t heard of Henry before I would love to know more about him.  The creation of Guilds and Liveries formalised trades and still exist today; the Guilds were given powers by the City of London to “survey and govern the men of the mystery” with Worshipful Company of Upholders formed in 1360.  These early days would have seen the craftsmen not only making, but repairing and dealing in secondhand pieces and furnishings.  They became the go to people for everything inside the home, from suppling cradles and lining coffins.   It’s not changed that much, all upholsters I know have a collection of frames and old pieces that they love but haven’t gotten around to yet; along with a fabric stash and ideas galore to change the look and feel of a piece. Therefore, as I practice the trade, I love the idea of being woman of mystery.  And I always did like Toyah. 

Definition of chair