Our Featured Article in Lake Magazine: The Couch That Wouldn’t Die
A dozen swatches had been preselected for us, all with various shades of blue and white, including a velvety Kravet fabric with figure eights, soft and thick; a blue and green pattern with geometric shapes in a shiny cotton; two heavy fabrics, also by Kravet; and a rich blue with a shimmering glow by Duralee that comes in two patterns; studded with gold bumblebees or simple but elegant dragonflies. It would take less than six yards of the material, and once chosen, it was delivered in 48 hours. As Beene Veen started to tear away the old covering and foam from the couch, it appeared to have sustained less damage than the exterior and protected the frame successfully.
The springs (made by hand of iron, probably sometime around 1870) were in excellent shape, as was the oak, now that we could see the natural color. The metal on the frame needed cleaning but was otherwise in excellent shape. Even the web of string, which holds the metal pieces in place while the work is done, was in good shape. It is possible, however, that the daybed had been renovated. Beene says he has seen furniture built in the 1930’s that has been redone as many as four times. Calvin cleans the frame by brushing on a solvent, then uses a stiff brush to work the loosened soil off, following up with a second solvent and clean rags.
Repairs to the structure, the skeleton of the couch, take an unpredictable amount of time because of the variation, joints need to be reinforced with glue; crevices need to be filled where the fixative has deteriorated. In this case Art Rodriguez is measuring, cutting, gluing and pressuring the wood frame, rebuilding it to last.
Using a spray gun, Beene clears the oak frame of varnish and dirt by moving back and forth across the frame at 18 to 24-inch intervals. Much of the surface material has worn off over the years. Both Beene and Lou believe this piece is about 100 years old. There is so little interior damage that it has probably been cared for most of the time.
The next step is the choice of wood color. Basically there are four choices for this; a light beachwood finish, a medium, warm cherry tone; mahogany, which is highly unlikely for this piece with our fabric; and a simple, light coating that brings out the natural color of the oak, while protecting and finishing the wood. Lou grabs an unmarked plastic bottle, the kind used for hair color, and we do a test piece to see what it will look like in it’s natural state. The answer is obvious; we go with it.
Now the new permanent webbing is created using and 8-knot ring spiral fitted to the frame. Beene uses a button dye-cutter to cut the material that will cover the 28 buttons. The basic layer of cushioning and interior fabric, a strong burlap is cut and pieced together and secured with a nail gun, staples and glue. The function of these basic components has not changed in years, but the inherent flexibility and stability will lengthen the life of the piece.
This is the moment for celebrating the craftsmanship of this project and the simple beauty in the color and texture of a piece of cloth. Decisions are made about the square dragonfly motif, which is repeated every 14 inches, and the fabric is cut to fit; the dragonflies must fly in formation. The darts and pleats are sewn directly into the wells of the springs and onto the couch by hand. Creating the exterior cover takes about 8 to 10 hours, but that’s with a professional who has been working with upholstery for 17 years. This is as much like playing a piano as textile work gets, with the furniture maker moving at a certain rate of distance over the surface like he has 100 times before, and his hands know the process.
The couch is stuffed today. Foam is cut and pushed into the wide tufts that crisscross the body of the couch, and fat and swelling rounded channels are created for the head portion of the daybed. The entire couch is fastened with an air stapler, reinforced over and over again. The pattern of folds, pleats and darts matches perfectly.
The trim is from Rogers Custom Trim in Chicago. Lou remembers it, thought it would match perfectly, and it does. The gold double welt trim is measured, cut and finished on the sewing machine. The metal frame that will hold it in place is fixed onto the edges of the couch, and then the braid is wedged into the frame with the back of a tack puller and pounded with a plastic hammer to secure. The makeover took less than the 10 days Lou Butcher estimated at the beginning of our rehabilitation.