Town and Country Magazine July 17, 2015 09:57

Image courtesy of The French House

1. Where to source

Ardingly Antiques fair and Sunbury Antiques Market are excellent hunting grounds for vintage pieces, and the prices are extraordinarily good; get up early, bring cash, and be prepared to jostle with owners of antiques shops. I have bought everything from an antique Howard and Sons chair (for £150 – it is now restored and worth thousands) to beautiful Louis IV French sofas and mid-century Danish chairs at these haunts. Ebay is another favourite source of mine, particularly for mid-century pieces: for French armchairs, The French House has a lovely selection.

2. How to select a suitable chair

Don’t be put off by the likes of torn foam or stuffing spilling out of a chair that you love the overall shape and design of; professional re-upholstery will repair everything from sagging shapes to lumpy padding. Structural damage to the frame is to be avoided, however. "Look for a strong frame without wobbles, and check for woodworm, which weakens the wood," says Debbie Lowndes at the London Chair Collective, who specialise in re-upholstering vintage chairs. "If the wood has to be replaced this will add significantly to the cost of the upholstery."

3.  Re-covering vs Re-upholstering

‘Every chair is different, so there are no hard-and-fast rules, and the prices depend on the clients wishes and budget,’ says Lowndes. That said, she advises that restoring a chair falls approximately into one of 3 categories within the following price brackets at the London Chair Collective:

Re-covering: This involves a new top fabric and might include a second stuffing of horsehair – or polywadding – calico and top cover. From £375.  

Mid-range re-upholstery: An average re-upholstery job might include some work on the seat springs and strengthening and re-padding. This is great for chairs that are "sagging in the seat, or back, with the frame still strong and in good condition." From £420.

Full re-upholstery: "This might involve frame repair, glueing, woodworm treatment and filling in tack holes before beginning again and rebuilding with new webbing, springing, stuffing, stitching, second stuffing, calico, wadding and top cover," says Lowndes. From £495.

4.  How to re-cover with flair

I have a personal penchant for curvy mid-century chairs by Italian and French designers. With such strong contours, jewel-coloured silk velvets and mohair velvets work particularly well. Keep it simple –no fussy piping or trim is necessary here. I particularly love those by Turnell and Gigon.

For French Louis IV chairs (easy to find at Ardingly and other fairs), natural linen always works well. The Cloth Shop is my go-to for natural undyed linen and super-soft washed linens, whilst De le Cuona have a beautiful high-end collection. That said, for something stronger, I always love the juxtaposition of an animal print on an old French frame. Pierre Frey has wonderful leopard-print velvets.

To reinvigorate tired high-street pieces, I love a white loose cover with a navy or black piped trim or, for a flash of fabulous chintz in a modern setting, a large-scale floral from Colefax and Fowler or Bennison. Sticking to something simple or committing to a bold print works better than a small-scale design on such pieces.

Treat a one-off chair as an exclamation mark in a room, and really let your imagincation run wild. Think of it as an artwork – an item unto itself – rather than trying to match and blend too much with the rest of the room. "Inspiration is everywhere," says Lowndes. "Two of my Victorian iron-back chairs were inspired by a feathered Alexander McQueen dress I saw in Selfridges. Many nights were spent hand-stitching feathers to the back of my Hunting Shooting Fishing chair.’

5. How much fabric do you need?

‘Most fabrics are 130 to 140 cm wide; a rough guide would be five to six metres of fabric per chair,’ says Lowndes. ‘However, always get a professional to measure up properly before buying any fabric, and note that with large pattern repeats you’ll need more fabric, whilst plains require less,’ says Lowndes.