GETTING TO THE BOTTOM OF AN ANTIQUE CHAIR Inspections by experts reveal layers of truth


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.

Horsehair, he explains, first needs to be fluffed up, then sewn down in layers. "It is really an art in sewing those hand-stitched edges," he said.

Next I took the chair to Ibello & Co., in an old industrial building at 3500 Parkdale Ave., and spoke to Allen Ibello. His father, Paul, worked for the Rificis and married Sonny's sister.

Mr. Ibello agreed with me that removing the springs would give the chair a better profile. He estimated he could do the seat for $150, using webbing, cotton, polyurethane foam and a top layer of Dacron. He seemed adamant about not using horsehair. "You wouldn't get the look or feel you want," he said.

He pointed to two pieces of late classical (empire) American furniture, a sofa and an armchair. Both, he said, were left by prominent city antique dealers and both would get foam, not horsehair.

He estimated the leather would cost about $300 for a whole hide. He phoned suppliers, but he said they wouldn't sell just half a hide. But then he called a local fabric shop, which had a half hide in black for $118.

Finally I took the chair to Hasip Tuzeer, the upholsterer recommended by Paige Nelson, of Adajian and Nelson furniture retorers. Mr. Tuzeer's shop is in his house at 2627 N. Howard St.

The first thing Mr. Tuzeer did was run his hand over the chair back, grazing it slightly with his thumb. His verdict: "It's dead leather." It would crack and split in a few years, he assured me, so why not replace it all now? If nothing else, all the leather would match.

He estimated the seat in horsehair would run $150 to $175 and the whole chair $350. While his labor charges were high, he felt he could do the whole chair in half a hide.

He then showed me sample cards with leathers of various colors, grain and softness, and suggested one with minimum grain would be appropriate for a period chair. My price -- the wholesale price plus shipping and taxes -- would be $7 a square foot, maybe as much as $200 for half a hide.

So my little seat job had turned into a $550 expense.

But I felt confident that Mr. Tuzeer would do a fine job. You see, unlike the other firms with their teams of mechanics, Mr. Tuzeer does all his own work. He's had assistants, but can't keep them. He said they just don't have the patience to learn.

He began as an upholsterer 18 years ago with a Cockeysville company. There, he said, no one else wanted to work in the old manner, but "I was curious. I wanted something difficult."

He said, "I learned by myself by opening up old chairs."

Fine, I said. Check with the leather company to see if what I wanted was in supply and at the price last quoted. I arranged to return the following week so I could photograph him removing the upholstery.

RF I thought the event would be uneventful. At best the nailing rails

would be sound enough that the chair frame wouldn't need restoration. Was I ever wrong and right at the same time!

Trouble began with the first few tacks Mr. Tuzeer removed from the seat rail.

When he lifted the corner of the leather, only one set of tack holes was clearly evident. My heart jumped. It was highly improbable that an 1820 chair would have been covered only once. A half dozen times maybe, but once never.

At least when Mr. Tuzeer removed the horsehair and four oversized springs, we saw two serif capital letters, L N, stamped into the top of the broad brace of the seat -- maybe the maker's initials.

When the chair back was also exposed, two sets of tack holes were visible there. Small consolation.

The removal of the seat upholstery revealed finished wood much darker than elsewhere. It surely was meant to be visible. In fact, the seat leather had covered a corner of the reeding at the base of the arm supports. An unlikely event for original upholstery.

Mr. Tuzeer said the tacks and springs were modern and the welted top edge of the seat was machine sewn.

So, with a lump in my throat, I took the chair to Paige Nelson. He and his partner, Jim Adajian, inspected the chair frame in the sunlight. Mr. Nelson's early assumption of it being a period chair evaporated.

Mr. Adajian felt it was made of bits and pieces, that the legs might be old but the cross-stretchers looked Victorian. He suspected the stretchers came from some restorer's "bone pile" of odds and ends. Mr. Nelson said the wood of the stretchers was inferior to that of the legs.

I had trouble believing that stretchers appropriate to an early 19th century chair with a revolving seat just happened to be added to my chair to strengthen the legs. But I felt fairly crestfallen. Mr. Nelson also pointed to saw marks on the secondary wood and said they probably came from a machine-powered band saw.

So I took the chair to Bill Elder, consultant-curator of decorativ arts at the Baltimore Museum of Art. He too was skeptical as soon as he saw the nearly virgin nailing rails. He suspected a late-19th century manufacture in Britain, even though the secondary wood could be American maple.

Then the historical society's director, Gregory R. Weidman, took a look. She said she could understand how someone, like the dealer who sold it to me, could believe in was an early Boston piece, given the shape of the legs and construction of the back. But it just didn't look that old to her. The nailing rails again were the culprit.

She admonished me for not checking the rails at time of purchase. She said, "If you are at an antique show or at a shop you must be able to see the rails, because that is the original evidence of the chair."

She too suspected British construction, though maybe as early as mid-century. As to the maple, if indeed it was maple, she said that by the 1870s British firms were advertising furniture with American maple as the secondary wood.

Ms. Weidman suggested I contact a friend of hers, an expert in empire Boston seating furniture, and check with her husband, an antique dealer, for names of labs that could do an analysis of the secondary wood. So I called the expert who agreed to look at photographs of the chair frame. I also sent photos to the curator of wooden objects at the Winterthur Museum. I was referred to him when I called Paige Nelson's former partner, who is now a conservator there.

In the meantime, my chair is in limbo. Its naked frame is shoved into a corner of my living room awaiting further evaluation. Will I be able to live with an 1870s British chair no matter its fine lines and usefulness as revolving office chair? Or will I contact the seller and see what his return policy is?

These are hardly the questions I thought I would be facing when I decided it was time to redo the seat.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad