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Vintage Furniture Gets Modern Look

Kansas City, Mo. — 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.

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,” said Grassie, who is drawn to antique sofas and fabrics from India, as she looked around the first-floor gallery.

As it turns out, Grassie 30, of Weatherby Lake. Mo., represents a growing niche in the world of upholstery: Young clients interested in buying and reworking vintage furniture.

When Chuck de la Durantaye, a third-generation upholsterer, opened Dela Studios in Olathe, Kan., in 2008, he was sure his clients would be baby boomers and their parents.

Instead, he said, “we were pleasantly surprised to find young folks not just taking pieces handed down to them, but they were going to resale shops and estate sales and finding interesting pieces.”

He’s upholstering piece No. 5 for one young client who likes midcentury modern, he said.

According to Plett, a lot of 40-somethings 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 people 30 and under 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.

“They also can take it and personalize it, which is something you can’t get at Pottery Barn, where they offer various shades of beige,” she said.

Grassie added that there’s also “the whole sustainability factor. The idea that it’s not going to a landfill.”

Grace Bonney, founder of the popular blog Design.Sponge, thinks Amanda Brown, an upholsterer in Austin, Texas, had a lot to do with spurring the trend.

In her foreword to Brown’s recently released book, “Spruce: A Step-by-Step Guide to Upholstery and Design” (Storey Publishing), Bonney notes that 10 years ago, there were a lot of young artists producing gorgeous textile designs, “yet no one seemed to be doing anything with them other than making pillow after pillow.” Brown led the wave of upholsterers who began to reimagine vintage furniture in bold, contemporary fabrics.

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 said. “It’s amazing that people can sell stuff of such low quality. 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 said, 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, she 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, he said).

Plett had so many clients who wanted to learn to upholster that she and Tague began offering beginner classes earlier this 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.

It’s a challenge and an eye-opener for a lot of them, Plett said. If they do well, they might be able to upholster a small club chair, though probably not a long, 1960s empire-style sofa like one sitting on the gallery’s first floor.

A customer had commissioned it in dark menswear suit fabric with deep button diamond tufting on the back rest. The total cost for labor and fabric was just over $2,000.

“We refinished the wood trim but retained the dents, because it tells the story of the piece,” Plett said. “You couldn’t buy that sofa with that fabric and that quality for less than $5,000.”

Plett sometimes talks about her roadkill like they’re alive.

“Every single one of these pieces has a story,” she said. “They all have an energy about them. They’re like lost puppies happy to be found.”