Antique furniture: restore, refurbish or leave alone?


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."

She said museums are experimenting with reupholstery techniques. Since reupholstering means hammering in dozens of tacks into a frame that already may be splintered from a dozen previous upholsterings, the newest methods try a avoid new tacking.

That may mean affixing the outer fabric with Velcro strips or using easily removable hide glue. And it may mean that the upholstered areas are not built up with webbing (which also needs to be tacked on) and layers of horsehair, but are actually shaped out of foam around which the fabric is wrapped.

Such procedures, Cooper says, allow for the quick removal of the upholstery for easy study of the frame.

Nifty idea, I thought, so I called back another day for an appointment to photograph these amazing chairs that aren't really upholstered. But M. B. Mumford in the decorative arts department says there hasn't been any non-invasive upholstery done for the BMA.

And Jennifer Goldsborough, chief curator at the historical society, says ditto for there. In fact, she says, the non-invasive technique "really has been done very, very few times anywhere."

I did learn that neither local institution has their own conservation lab. All their conservation work is sent out, sometimes as far away as Boston. Locally, both Wendy Cooper and Gregory Weidman recommended Walter Raynes, in the Dickeyville section of Baltimore. He has worked on furniture for both institutions.

Conservator vs. restorer

The furniture in Raynes' shop, in the long, white mill building along the Gwynns Falls, attests to his reputation. A half dozen early Federal chairs are in various states of repair. A late 18th century Eastern Shore desk awaits new feet. The metal trim is being restored on a circa 1820 secretary destined for the BMA's upcoming show of the Classical Revival period.

Walter Raynes says he picked up his "hand skills" on his own. Ithe early '80s he worked in the Harry Berry shop, now closed, on Read Street. He has had conservation training at the Smithsonian Institution's museum support center in Suitland and the Winterthur Museum near Wilmington.

Generally he accepts the guidelines set down by the American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, although he is not certified by the AIC.

When presented with a piece of furniture, he has learned to look at it as a cultural object, reflecting not only its manufacture but the history of its use, including changes from its original structure.

Collectors and conservators, he says, often face a dilemma, whether to view an object "as a 100 percent cultural object or as its original intent."

Either way he feels he needs to be very conservative about changes to a piece's structure, decoration or finish. "I make certain recommendations," he says. "I won't add anything without evidence of its being original."

If a decision is made to return a piece to its original design because later modifications destroyed the original intent or were inappropriate, then he "makes an attempt at restoration" especially if he can find an appropriate model.

His careful, thoughtful approach, his willingness to document every step in writing and in photographs is time-consuming and expensive. His hourly rate is $50, and he says, "It's rare to work on anything for less than a day." He charges $50 to come out and look at a piece.

Then I visited Adajian and Nelson, the shop I've patronized for about seven years.

Like Raynes' shop, this firm is in a 19th century industrial building, but it's near the Jones Falls in Hampden.

Paige Nelson comes across as a no-nonsense person. He has been in the trade for 15 years and is self-trained. Jim Adajian, who has a master's degree in sculpture from Maryland Institute, has been an equal partner since 1984 after four years training with Nelson.

The firm has done work for several historic buildings in the area including the house at the Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, the Hammond-Harwood House in Annapolis and the Octogon House in Washington, D.C.

In comparing his work with that of a conservator, Nelson says, "They don't really care if it's functional. We look at a piece as it should work and how a customer wants to use their furniture."

His approach sometimes "means doing something invasive to make it functional," he says.

Conservators, he says, often deal with bigger, institutionally funded budgets because their methods, including step-by-step documentation, can multiply costs four times.

While he pooh-poohs the value of documentation, he praises his shop's skill at structural repair and work on the finish. Few shops, he says, are good at both.

Still, some developments in the conservation world are reflected in his business. If nothing else, he has to deal with what he calls, "the current prejudices" of the antiques business.

For instance, he says, "the market highly values an 'original' finish" even though in his opinion "there are very few original finishes around." He says many people are happy with an apparently untouched finish as long as it looks old.

He does credit conservation labs, like Winterthur's, with revolutionizing the knowledge of antiques in the past 10 to 20 years through "research, scientific inquiry and real scholarship."

In fact, when he's stumped, he says he consults a former partner of his who now is an associate furniture conservator at Winterthur.

I showed the chair with its cracked leather upholstery still on it to Raynes and Nelson. Raynes said he was unfamiliar with its design and withheld his opinion as to its vintage; Nelson, however, felt relatively confident it was a period antique and that it was designed not to have springs in its seat.

Since I was not planning to have the chair's original screw mechanism restored and since it was solid structurally, I didn't leave the chair at either shop but proceeded to visit upholsterers.

Next week: Selecting an upholsterer and discovering what's under the chair's leather upholstery.

Who should work on antiques?

When I sought out Baltimore furniture conservators, I didn't try to contact every competent shop in the area. But in talking to two of the most well-known, I got some good advice on how to find qualified craftsmen.

Walter Raynes said a collector should go to a restorer with these questions in mind: How does the person determine what work is needed; how carefully does the person examine the piece; and how conservative is the person toward altering the piece, including the finish?

He said a customer needs to be specific if he wants work appropriate to the piece, and needs to be able to check out the work's progress.

Paige Nelson recommended that a collector first go by word of mouth, then check the shop to see how well-equipped it is and then inspect the work done there.

Mark Anderson, Nelson's former partner and now associate furniture conservator at Winterthur Museum near Wilmington, Del., said the bottom line for collectors is "education and involvement."

He said owners need to recognize the monetary value of their antiques and the need to preserve their value. And owners, he said, can either trust the shop blindly or get involved with restoration decisions, like getting pretreatment reports that list procedures to be performed.

As for upholstered furniture, he said, "It's an uphill battle to convince people to save old material." To do so, he said, might mean willingness to live with tattered material and lumpy padding.

Mr. Anderson suggested checking with the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works because the organization offers a referral service for conservation work.

When I checked, I was sent two brochures, one on the referral system and one on selecting a conservator.

According to the first brochure, call the referral office and: "Please have ready as complete a description as possible of the object you wish to have treated or the type of conservation service you require."

It also says, "In response to your inquiry, a computer-generated list of conservators will be compiled and grouped geographically, by specialization, and by type of serivce provided."

All conservators recommended would be members of the AIC.

The other brochure explains there are three AIC membership catagories: an entry-level associate membership for all who request it, from collectors to beginning conservators; a professional associate level, for people with at least five years' experience in conservation; and a "fellow" level for those with more experience and demonstrated work in advancing their field in conservation.

You can phone the AIC at (202) 232-6636 for these brochures. Requests for referrals should be made in writing to: American Institute of Conservation, 1400 16th St. NW, Suite 340, Washington, D.C. 20036.

Scott Ponemone

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