A Cushion Job
Upholstery is not a word Aiveen Daly likes very much. “I wish it was called something else," she says. “It’s associated with fuddy-duddiness. It wasn’t always the way – think of those grand canopied four-poster beds or even of lined coffins. The work was amazing."
Daly leads the way in the revival, and advancement, of the techniques that made it so – in the creation of a craft form she has, to date, called simply ‘specialist upholstery’. This is the application of multiple crafts to make a piece of furniture considerably more than its form. One piece might require the work of seven craft experts.
“Often we have to come up with a new technique to bring a client’s idea to life," says Daly, who says she’s inspired by fashion, and keeps a keen eye on the couture shows for materials and production methods she might borrow. “We have to learn to do something for one job and then move on. But it’s what I wanted. When I was studying upholstery, the industry seemed to be rather conservative. And just putting a Laura Ashley fabric on a chair didn’t seem so exciting. I wondered why something more exciting couldn’t be done with it before it went on the piece."
That is what Daly does. And then some. Recent pieces have included a chair with finely pleated silk, cut with a scalpel and then fitted into leather panels. While Daly’s style may seem elaborate – a Gucci-inspired Paradise chair, for example, sees pleated gloss satin stitched on the bias with a swallow motif beaded and embroidered by hand using black, bronze and gold beads – subtlety is possible.
“The work can be very sleek and geometric too. It doesn’t have to be fussy," laughs Daly. “Specialist upholstery can cater to all tastes. We do a lot of work for men, for instance, and typically they don’t want anything too fancy, though they still want the expressiveness that the upholstery can bring, the more textural qualities."
Certainly this 21st-century approach to upholstery is on the rise. There is also the work of, for example, Los Angeles-based Kelly Wearstler. Her new Souffle collection sees contemporary armchairs, settees and beds covered with a single panel of intricately pleated leather.
Helen Amy Murray
Or of London-based Helen Amy Murray, who uses it to create three-dimensional wall panels, such as the one recently installed in Longchamp’s Paris flagship.
“Upholstery isn’t simply about covering chairs," Murray notes. “It can be about making the materials used for covering furniture as 3D as the furniture, for example." She works by sculpting felt, suede, leather, artificial leathers and other materials, layering them, precision cutting and padding them to create a relief effect – “the effect you’d usually find in hard materials," she explains. And that’s an effect that can be applied anywhere – she has been commissioned to finish entire rooms in it: walls, ceilings, but, she adds, not the floor.
There are, of course, limitations as to how the work of Daly or Murray might be applied to a piece of furniture.
Daly stresses that, for all of the effects achievable by specialist upholstery, a chair still has to function as a chair. It’s why, while Murray has done fully sculpted chairs, more typically the work is confined to back panels, “turning it into a piece of art you can still sit on", she suggests.
Clients typically request the effect to focus around natural, organic motifs – leaves, birds, animals – either to create a standout feature piece in a room or to complement a wider scheme. Indeed, such is the newness of specialist upholstery that it seems clients are often ahead of the wider furniture industry – elements of which are perhaps stuck in that old fuddy-duddiness Daly wants to leave behind.
“Sometimes a client has already chosen a piece of bespoke furniture and we can work with the manufacturer to upholster it in a particular way," says Murray.
“But not all companies are so open to that. On one occasion the client had to order their furniture made with the cheapest possible material, which we then took off and replaced." The result, however, was worth it.