Most people who go to Cape Cod on vacation come home with something like a shark snow globe or cranberry-scented soap.
A few years ago, I drove back from the beach with a yellow club chair wedged into the back of my station wagon. The chair had caught my eye on a visit to a favorite church thrift shop in Dennis Port. Priced at $35, it had the perfectly petite dimensions (32 inches high and 29 inches wide) to fit into the compact guest room of my 1937 brick Colonial. It’s hard to date the chair, but I would guess 1940s to 1960s.
I was always planning to reupholster or slipcover it, but I put off the project until the arms of the chair were threadbare and the bottom cushion flat as a pancake. Not a very nice way to welcome a house guest.
My husband and I assumed the chair’s perfect dimensions made it worth putting money into saving it. But after doing a little investigating, we weren’t so sure. Labor estimates from several upholstery shops were about $500 to reupholster and a bit less to slipcover. We would need eight to 10 yards of fabric, which even at $20 a yard would be about $200, and there would probably be additional charges such as wrapping the seat cushion to plump it up.
With tax and extras, our little chair’s makeover probably would cost $800 or $900. That’s a lot of money for a place to sit while pulling on your socks. We began to wonder whether we would be better off buying a new chair, although we cringed at the wastefulness of sending this one to the dump.
I checked in with some experts in the design field to ask their opinions, and to get their go-to choices for small bedroom chairs should we choose to replace ours. Their suggestions for replacements ranged from the $399 Stocksund chair at Ikea — about half the price of reupholstering — to Ballard Design’s Olivia chair, too pricey at $1,444 in the fabric I’d prefer.
There were also lots of differing opinions on our situation in general.
Washington designer Sally Steponkus is a big fan of reupholstering. “If it’s a good brand or very sturdy and fits the space perfectly, or it means something to the owners, I will reupholster it. The old ones have more soul,” Steponkus says. She finds a good upholsterer can breathe new life into an old chair with good tailoring and extra padding. “Lots of vintage chairs you find at estate sales have very interesting shapes you don’t find in a lot of the new stuff today.”
She says fabric can be expensive, but consumers can source reasonably priced textiles at designer outlets and on Etsy. Slipcovers? She’s not a fan. “The furniture then looks really messy,” she says.
Susan Pilchard, of Pilchard Designs, a Washington drapery and upholstery workroom, says upholstery can be worth it for a favorite piece. Finely tailored slipcovers made “so they fit perfectly like a custom-made dress” are extremely pricey, she says, but look very elegant.
E.C. Robinson, who runs a third-generation-owned upholstery business in Alexandria, will quote you on labor and material charges if you email him photos and dimensions of your piece. But he cautions it’s a ballpark estimate until he takes off the old fabric and gets a look inside. “A lot of times the frame is loose from all the sitting and moving in and out of it for years. It may need frame work, spring work or re-webbing. You may need new foam,” Robinson says. So, don’t be surprised if the project is more expensive. “It’s not done by machine; reupholstering is all done by hand,” he says.
The expense of reupholstering usually discourages design blogger Emily A. Clark . “In general, for my decorating purposes, I stay away from investing too much in reupholstering — unless it’s a really unique piece,” Clark says. She does find slipcovering a viable option, especially for families with young kids, which is her situation. She calls it “the Ikea Ektorp slipcovered sofa season of life.”
Jason Oliver Nixon, co-owner of design firm Madcap Cottage, is a fan of saving old furniture through reupholstering and slipcovering. He points out that today, everything is over-scaled to fit larger homes, while vintage pieces are often more compact to fit smaller homes from decades past. But it’s all about finding the right upholsterer. “It’s like having a really good cobbler, seamstress or tailor on your speed dial,” Nixon says.
Nixon and his partner, John Loecke, developed a line of more petite furniture for Stein Mart because they noticed too many “hulking, oversized options out there,” Nixon says.
My husband and I are now leaning toward buying new, if we can find a chair in an appropriate size and fabric for about the same cost as the reupholstering. We’ll be watching the fall upholstery sales.
As for my cute little yellow chair, it will be donated to a charity or offered on Freecycle. Our wish is that it will be adopted by a new family who might toss a colorful suzani or an antique quilt on it and turn it from shabby to boho chic.