Special Report: Upholstery Uncovered

By Sarah Van Arsdale on February 1st, 2006

When a room is in need of new look, many interior designers advise you start with the flooring. Next, attend to the walls. Once those basics are in place, it's time to move on to the heavy hitters: the upholstered furniture.

upholstered couch

After the flooring and walls, it's the look of upholstered furniture that can really make or break a room. Fill a room with mismatched pieces, and it will look as if you've just done a round-up for the annual church bazaar or garage sale day. But choose the right fabric, coordinate the pieces of furniture with one another and with the rest of the room, and the upholstered furniture can be what makes the whole room come together.

Upholstered furniture is no small thing, both literally and figuratively. And according to Greg Hefner, of Friendship Upholstery in Taylorsville, North Carolina, by its nature it's the upholstered pieces in a room that draw the eye.

"Upholstered furniture is the focal point of a living room," Hefner said. " Upholstery is the base of the room. From these pieces, you design the room itself."

Indeed, for many people, the upholstered furniture is the biggest consideration in designing a room. You can put down a new rug, change the wall color, switch accessories such as lamp shades, and rotate art work inexpensively. But the upholstered furniture is an investment, and so it's important to consider how to best get the look you want.

upholstered chair

According to John Victor Jokinen, Co-Founder, President and CEO of E.J. Victor in Morganton, North Carolina, upholstered pieces are especially prized in rooms where relaxation is paramount – and they have been historically as well.

They're best in "a place to relax and either be sociable or enjoy private moments – living areas are now close to becoming extensions of kitchens/dens," he said.

For many people, it's difficult to see how upholstered pieces might fit into a modern or contemporary room design. Some people will assume it's "stuffy" – both literally and figuratively.

But Jokinen disagrees. "Mixing antiques with modern is quite pleasing, blending in clean lines of upholstery and not overpowering with design and color of the fabric can nicely complement the room."

Hefner says that using upholstered furniture well in a contemporary room is most often a matter of choosing the right fabrics and accessories.

"In a contemporary setting with an upholstered piece, use more contemporary fabrics such as circles or squares, using metal and glass occasional tables, art deco lamps, geometric patterns on throw pillows and area rugs. Also surround the room with modern accessories and artwork."

upholstered sofa

Often, this approach can lead one to try innovative new uses for upholstered furniture, Hefner said. "It is absolutely okay to mix styles of furniture with different fabrics. The eclectic look is quite popular today using different styles of furniture, multiple fabrics, and different textured fabrics. As long as the room is color-coordinated, anything goes!"

Jokinen says that "the unexpected is sometimes the most pleasing."

"Again, it works if it is in keeping with the style of the home and it is comfortable to live with for more than a few weeks."

For many people, having upholstered furniture that suits their style and taste is a matter of getting older pieces reupholstered; often, people inherit pieces and then have to decide how to choose the best fabric to fit with the decor of their own home.

furniture needing upholstery
furniture after upholstery

Before beginning to find an upholsterer, a homeowner should first understand the important distinction between recovering and reupholstering a piece of furniture, Hefner said.

upholstered ottomans

"A lot of people don't understand re-upholstery," Hefner said. "They really should call this recovering instead of re-upholstery, as most re-upholsterers only recover the piece."

While the way a piece looks is indeed important, it's what's inside that really counts. "One of the most important parts of a piece of furniture is the internal components such as springs, webbing, and edge rope," Hefner said. "These components make up your seat and back which is very important to how a piece sits. Re-upholsterers usually don't replace these components. That is why I recommend buying new furniture instead. I know, however, sometimes you have an antique or an heirloom and this is not feasible. Please insist that your upholsterer replace these key components."

While Jokinen has nothing against recovering a piece, he said that the room is what should dictate "whether to start anew" with a new piece of furniture, or whether recovering can make an older piece fit in with a room's decor.

interior design

When someone is ready to update a piece of upholstered furniture, Jokinen says the first thing is to determine "whether the item needs to be thrown out or can be salvaged by recovering it in updated looks that work within its setting."

Then, according to Hefner, one can give a new look to a piece simply by changing the throw pillows.

"They are relatively inexpensive and can give your furniture a whole new look! You can also look at using throws over the backs of your furniture."

In terms of the future, Jokinen said that size consideration is becoming a new topic in the field, with designers moving from large scale back to more standard dimensions for upholstered pieces.

"With construction costs escalating and room size normally being constrained – other than huge rooms with extraordinarily tall ceilings – there is a large influx of alternate sources of supply now of upholstered products. Almost every day a new catalog arrives from the likes of Pottery Barn or Horchow."

Despite that, Jokinen advises that people remember that upholstered furniture is a big investment, and to be careful in choosing who they buy from.

"I would say that the average customer should stick with trusted designers/stores if they want to keep the furniture for any reasonable length of time."

upholstery chairs

Hefner sees people going back to older styles, in furniture as well as in overall design.

"Contemporary furniture has been relevant for the past decade or so, but I think the trend is turning back to the more traditional or country styles now," he said. "That's what we've geared more of our products toward in the last three years. I guess, other than building a quality product at a competitive price, that's why we've been so busy while other manufacturers have been slow."

So if you're designing or re-designing a room, don't hesitate to bring in the upholstered furniture; it will soften the room's lines, and with clever recovering can be updated to suit any style.