Antique furniture: restore, refurbish or leave alone?


July 14, 1991|By Scott Ponemone

Antique seating pieces can be a collector's curse, especially if the collector insists, as I do, on actually using them.

It's one thing to maintain them just for looks. Museums do not have to worry about them being structurally sound enough to bear the weight of your heftiest house guest. Nor do museums fret over food spills on the freshly reupholstered seats of your dining-room chairs.

It's another thing to use them. Each time a chair is moved about (dragged), each time it's sat upon (plopped down on), each time the sitter changes position (squirms), the chair's frame is stressed. Same for its upholstery and the underlying materials used to pad out the shape. The abuse is constant.

Take for instance the set of six chairs in my dining room. In the five years I've owned them, three have been reglued. One currently needs the webbing replaced on its seat, so it's been shunted off to a bedroom to delay repair.

Some time down the road I face the costly task of reupholstering the sofa. It's modern foundation of foam just doesn't sit right, but since its fabric has little wear, I'm trying to ignore it.

Which brings me to the swivel chair I bought last winter with its seat needing repair. The springs had come untied and the leather was split.

Despite my experience with seating furniture, I thought I faced only the replacing of the seat. The leather on the back looked sound. The frame was strong and freshly refinished (too vigorously for my tastes, but I thought I could live with it).

How naive!

The following is an account of what I discovered in the course of trying to be the responsible owner of an antique chair.

The Assumption

Returning my swivel chair to use required a number of decisions, all based on some important assumptions about the origin of the chair.

When I bought it, I was told (and it's written on my receipt) it was made in the Boston area between 1810 and 1820. Its tapered, reeded legs suggested the dating was right. The reeding of the exposed wood along the top edge of the chair back, the shape of the back and the structure of the back's frame, visible from the rear, all conformed to models from the period. Its primary wood (what you can see) was mahogany, correct for urban furniture of the time. Its upholstery, black leather, was a replacement, although an appropriate choice.

It was missing, however, an important part of its original structure. This was evident by a hole where the cross-stretchers (wood that connected the legs in the form of an X) intersected. Such a hole would have held the shaft of a wooden screw device designed to raise and lower the seat by turning it.

In reference books I've seen similar constructions for music chairs of the period. The circumference of my chair, however, is wider than these. Also my chair has an upholstered back that wraps around to form partial arms. It was sold to me as a library chair, and considering its construction, it could well have been designed as such.

The screw had been replaced, maybe a hundred years ago, by an iron mechanism that allowed the seat to revolve but not change height. A significant alteration, but I thought the form rare enough, the design stylish enough, and the chair comfortable enough for me to purchase it.

I try not to deceive myself that when it comes to furniture, I can afford to buy an entirely original anything. I try to learn the extent of a piece's originality before I purchase it. In fact I'm more comfortable when I spot changes in a piece -- like a mended leg, patched veneer or replaced drawer pulls -- than when I can't.

Yet when you take a piece home, inevitably there are surprises ahead. You just hope the surprises aren't too ugly. In this case, I hoped the chair frame was made in the early 19th century.

The museums

Anyway the piece was mine and it needed work, but where to turn?

In the past I've been very satisfied with the Baltimore firm of Adajian and Nelson for restoration and with their choice in upholsterers, Hasip Tuzeer. But largely because this article was percolating in my head, I decided to broaden my choices.

So I called the Maryland Historical Society and talked to its director, Gregory R. Weidman. First off, she said that a private collector should follow the sequence they use for seating furniture: "We take [it] to a conservator first, then we may take it to an upholsterer." Don't expect an upholsterer, she said, to be able to do the conservation work needed on the frame.

But she quickly reminded me that the conservation needs of museums and private collectors may differ greatly.

"We believe for our things less is more," she said. "We preserve as much of the original fabric [both frame and upholstery materials] as possible. We are not as concerned with structural strength because we assume no one is going to sit on it."

Wendy Cooper, curator of the Department of Decorative Arts at the Baltimore Museum of Art, also talked about institutions favoring "the least invasive upholstery treatment."

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