Stephanie Grassie wandered into Sit On It … A Chair Gallery one morning and began browsing.
Grassie learned about the Kansas City, Mo., shop online after searching Yelp for furniture stores and finding a customer description that read, “It’s like art you can sit on.”
Shop owner Richelle Plett told Grassie that if she wanted to see what the studio was really about, she should head upstairs to the “roadkill floor.”
That’s where Plett stores hundreds of old sofas, chairs, ottomans and other upholstered furniture that she has bought from yard, garage and estate sales or — as the name implies — found abandoned and decrepit on the side of the road.
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She rescues them and gives them some much-needed love.
Each piece has a price tag that indicates how much that love will cost the person who chooses it. Most sofas run around $800 in labor charges, while occasional chairs are about $450.
That includes creating medium-density cushions, installing Dacron and cotton batting, stabilizing the frame, hand-tying springs and touching up exposed wood, Plett says. Fabric, which is often more than the cost of labor, is extra.
“I can’t find anything in stores that I like. This is unique, one-of-a-kind,” Grassie says.
As it turns out, Grassie, 30, represents a growing niche in the world of upholstery: Young clients interested in buying and reworking vintage furniture.
According to Plett, a lot of people in their 30s and 40s seem to prefer what she calls disposable furniture from big-box retailers.
“People who grew up during the Reagan era, they’re like, ‘Oh let’s just get something new,’ ” she says. “But (younger people) seem to realize that you can’t get the good stuff in those stores, and they feel a need to connect with previous generations. They walk in here, and it’s like walking into their grandparents’ homes. It’s nostalgic.”
Grassie adds that there’s also “the whole sustainability factor — the idea that it’s not going to a landfill.”
Typically, a high-quality sofa or chair will have springs that have been hand-tied eight ways, tight webbing and down cushioning. In low-quality furniture, cheap foam and thin wood substitute for those parts.
Laura Rowzee, who co-owns Rowzee Upholstery with her husband, Andy, is astounded by the quality of new furniture.
“It is so, so bad,” she says. “The frames are only one-eighth of an inch thick in places. It’s hard to take the staples out because the frame wants to break. And the foam they use is thin and often chopped up. [Customers] bring it in, and we tell them it’s not worth reupholstering.”
Plett keeps a new chair on hand in Sit On It, with pieces of fabric removed to expose the cardboard that shapes one of its arms and the lack of webbing on the back.
“That’s a no-no,” she says, pointing to the webbing. “Unless you were absolutely sentimental about this piece, it would be questionable as to whether it should be reupholstered.”
On the flip side, she has seen people with few or no upholstery skills take high-quality vintage pieces and redo them by putting new fabric on top of the old.
“Kudos to anyone who is re-covering an old piece, but it’s a short-term fix,” she says.
Sitting on furniture squishes the springs and puts tension on the twine that’s tying them together — a good thing because it keeps it all flexible, Plett says. But people tend to store unused furniture in garages and basements, where lack of use and climate conditions dry out the twine. Also, the foam breaks down and becomes toxic. Eventually most of it needs to be torn off the frame and replaced.
Plett, whose grandmother was a tailor and mother a seamstress, had been dabbling in interior design for several years when she founded Sit On It in 2011. One of her upholsterers, Pat Tague, has been upholstering furniture since 1969 (including 400 clubhouse seats in royal blue at Kauffman Stadium, the home of baseball’s Kansas City Royals).
Plett had so many clients who wanted to learn to upholster that she and Tague began offering beginner classes last year.
For $375 plus the cost of fabric, they teach clients how to measure, mark and cut upholstery; properly use the tools; attach new webbing; add and hand-tie springs using the eight-way method; cut and apply foam; and fold corners of fabric. The students upholster their own ottomans during four two-hour weekly classes.