Inspections by experts reveal layers of truth


July 21, 1991|By Scott Ponemone

When I bought an antique swivel chair with tapered, reeded legs, last winter, the seat springs had come untied and the leather was split.

Instead of going directly to an upholsterer, I tried to act the responsible collector by first querying museum curators and then visiting shops that conserve and restore furniture. These consultations supported my conclusion that the chair was structurally sound, and needed only upholstery work.

One of the conservation experts I consulted, Walter Raynes, of Dickeyville, summed up the problem of dealing with antique furniture: Collectors and conservators, he says, often face a dilemma, whether to view an object as the sum total of its history or only as its maker's original intent.

Since the chair was purchased not only for its historical and aesthetic aspects but also for usefulness as office furniture, the next step was to find a sensitive upholsterer.

My search was based on the assumption that the seller of the chair was right when he said the chair was American, probably Bostonian, made in the first quarter of the 19th century. Over the years, I believed the chair had been changed in the following ways: It had lost the wooden screw mechanism that raised and lowered the seat; springs had been added to the seat; and it had been refinished.

Pre-1830 upholstered furniture didn't have springs. The lean look was in. Seats were hard. The cushy, overstuffed look wouldn't arrive in force until mid-century.

As Jennifer Goldsborough, chief curator at the Maryland Historical Society, says, early in the 1800s people dressed differently from today -- especially women with their corsets. The cut of their clothing conformed to their ideals of posture. They sat more erect than we do today.

Therefore their furniture didn't need a lot of stuffing. Seating wasn't designed for curling up with a good book. Moreoever, early 19th century chairs and sofas look dumpy when their taut lines are hidden under mounds of padding and springs.

So consider me a purist. Ms. Goldsborough is more practical. She says, "What I expect in my home and will live with is very different from what we expect in a museum." People today would not find period upholstery practices comfortable or attractive, she believes.

Also, she says, people today would be disappointed with the fabric choices back then, when fabrics were pulled tightly across the frame and only the sturdiest wore well. Ms. Goldsborough says no one then except the extremely wealthy would use the silks or damasks we've come to associate with antique seating. She says the choices were limited to horsehair and leather, sometimeswool, because "the wear factor is not as much a problem with hair or leather."

When it comes to upholstery, we need to unlearn the tastes and decisions of wealthy collectors of the past century. Or as Ms. Goldsborough says, "What is in the general public's eye as Colonial is really the 1920s Colonial revival."

Anyway, period seating looks great with crisp upholstery edges and flat profiles. And while a hard seat may surprise your rump at first, it's far from uncomfortable.

Local museum curators and Mr. Raynes recommended two Baltimore firms capable of upholstering without springs: Rifici Upholstering in Hampden and Ibello & Co. near Television Hill. It turns out the owners are related by marriage, and the businesses were united until 15 years ago.

I first showed my chair to Sonny Rifici at his shop at 3317 Keswick Road. I explained that I thought only the seat needed work. We discussed what would be the desirable height of the seat, now so misshapen with oversized springs. I liked watching him inspect the chair, turning it over, testing to see if the brass-headed tacks were steel underneath or solid brass.

He gave me two prices for labor on the seat: $85 with springs, $135 with horsehair. Later over the phone he amended the estimates for doing the whole chair without springs: $225.

As to new leather, he said I would have to buy half a hide for the seat, at a price of $100 or more. For the whole chair, he said, I'd have to buy a whole hide. Leather is bought by the square foot with a minimum purchase of half a hide, about 20 square feet.

Mr. Rifici said he learned old-style upholstering by watching the workers, called mechanics, in his shop, but doesn't do it himself. "I have a young fellow who is trained in the natural stuff," he said.

Mr. Rifici's experience goes back to the 1950s, when his father began the business in the garage of their South Baltimore home. After a stint in the army, Mr. Rifici began work in the firm full-time by the mid-'60s.

His father, he said, was always looking for new ways of doing things without hurting quality. "He didn't like the old school," Mr. Rifici said. Horsehair stuffing was particularly disliked because "that stuff is miserable to work with," creating a lot of dust and taking three or four times longer than springs.

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