Take This Chair & Stuff It

How do you tell a chair you love it?

Give it a second chance to shine, says Christopher Berry, master upholsterer from On Island Upholstery. With constant use, even the best furniture can tire out, split open, sag in the bottom, and spread in the middle. But with some fresh padding and carefully selected fabric, in the right hands, even the most dilapidated divan or out-of-luck ottoman can be restored to its former glory.

In Berry's basement workroom, painted a bright orange-coral color, a wing chair stripped to its bones stood on a wooden stand. A television played quietly in the corner; piles of stuffing, cushions, and an upturned couch lined the walls. Berry sat on a self-built roving work chair, essentially a box on wheels with cushions on top and straps on the sides to hold tools. From this perch, he performs extreme makeovers on furniture.

Berry, who moved to the Island in 2012, wasn’t exactly looking for a career in upholstery when it more or less found him in the early 1980s. He was working as a cabinet maker when he met and began studying with a German master of the art, Harry Kohl, in Syracuse, New York. It takes at least five years to learn the basics of upholstery, from tying down springs to webbing and tufting, Berry explained. But even with the basics down, the art of upholstery is somewhat intuitive and fluid.

Christopher Berry

“Everything is by feel,” he said. “That’s a big thing with this trade; everything is by feel.” 

The first step in getting to know a piece of furniture, whether it be a chair, couch, or motorcycle seat, is to strip it, he said. By peeling back the layers of fabric, padding, and springs, Berry learns how the bones of the piece fit together, and whether reupholstering is the best path for the object.

Reupholstering increases comfort and can be customized, but it can be more expensive than buying a new piece, he explained. When deciding whether to save a piece of furniture or kick it to the curb, therefore, it’s important to consider the quality of the build and the character of the item. Is it made of good solid wood with strong bones and a fluid design? Or is it something bought for cheap?

Berry has reupholstered the latter, when a funky design detail or sentimental value kept it close to the owner’s heart, but mainly he works with high-quality pieces.

Even so, he noted, reupholstery is not just for antique collectors. “I do work for the guy down the street that really can’t afford it, give him a break, all the way up to billionaires.”

After stripping a piece of furniture, Berry begins to rebuild it with an emphasis on comfort. Padding can be stacked as high as a watermelon standing on its end and hardly make a bulge under the fabric once anchored down. Next, he adds new fabric and “matches” it to create a seamless, continuous design between each cut and fold. Berry calls this his favorite part of the process, but notes that not all upholsterers perform this extra step.

“I’m super-duper picky so it slows me down, but it was how I was taught,” he said. “I was taught from a German master who would shoot you if you didn’t match it. It’s a better job. It doesn’t matter how busy the print is, I’ll match it.”

Berry’s attention to detail doesn’t end there. He prefers to continue fabric under a cushion, instead of leaving a swath of denim, he said. That way if the cushions gap at all a matching fabric will show through.        

“Go up to the piece, lift up the cushions,” he said. “You don’t want to see the denim, that’s a sign of quality.”

In addition to couches and chairs, Berry has reupholstered a few boats and cars, but says it’s really a different trade. “Cars are completely different. I’ve only done two in my life and swore all the way through it,” he admitted.

Naturally, he’s discovered plenty of loose change and trinkets in the course of his reupholstering projects. But he’s discovered a few surprises, too. Once on a job in Syracuse he uncovered a loaded pistol, he said. He called the owner of the chair to let him know. “Don’t touch it!” the man shouted. The gun had been modified to have a hair trigger.

Thankfully, not every job is so dangerous. Most of the time it’s just packing down the foam.