About two weeks ago, Cam and I stopped at a garage sale just a few blocks from our house. The guy running it had some good quality furniture and interesting ceramics and, tucked in the back of the dim garage, a totally busted and rusted Saarinen pedestal – or tulip – chair. According to the Knoll website, Eero Saarinen designed his iconic Pedestal Collection to address the “ugly, confusing, unrestful world” he observed underneath chairs and tables — the so-called “slum of legs.”
As I stood in the jumbled garage, I’m pretty sure my thoughts were along the lines of, “Well, now that I think of it, there certainly is a slum of legs at my house, and this chair just might be the remedy.”
The guy said he’d take $5 for it. Sold.
I came gleefully home with my treasure and then took a good hard look at it. It was missing its cushion. The upholstery was ratty and filthy, with crumbling foam poking out of small tears. The fabric on the arms was so frayed it looked like goat beards hanging down. The aluminum base was almost entirely devoid of paint and was badly rusted and pitted. I’d brought home an ‘iconic piece of mid-century design,’ but it wasn’t something I really wanted in my house.
Upholstering this kind of chair is way outside of my skill set. There is a place online called retro redo that specializes in reupholstering shell chairs in period-appropriate fabric, but they are outside my budget and probably will be for quite a while.
So what to do? The problems the chair had were more than could be mitigated by a sheepskin thrown over it, but I didn’t want it to languish in our storage area until I could afford to get it redone. Then I found this tutorial online and thought I had found the answer: painted upholstery. Brilliant. A short-term solution that would make the chair usable, but wouldn’t alter it in a permanent way. Down the road I could still have the chair restored to its former glory. So I got to work.
The first thing I did was make a pattern for a new cushion. I looked at images online of original chairs to get a sense of shape and scale, and then used a newspaper to trace the outline and make a pattern.
Following the advice of the upholstery painting tutorial I’d found online, I used black acrylic paint and a fabric medium – which is supposed to keep the paint supple and make the final product softer (*spoiler* supposed to) – that I got at JoAnn Fabrics. I used a coupon, and it cost about $17 for all the supplies. I vacuumed the heck out of the chair and gave the goat beards a little shave using a utility knife. I headed out into the sunshine and started painting the chair. I also painted the new cushion so it would match.
I did one coat on Saturday and let it dry overnight. I did a second coat early on Sunday morning and then a third on Sunday afternoon. I also (with no small amount of effort) removed the final remnants of the paint from the base. I gave the fiberglass shell a good cleaning (which was very satisfying) and, after a final going-over with a Mr Clean Magic Eraser, it was sparkling like new.
And the final verdict? It turned out… okay. In what is probably a surprise to no one but me, painted fabric looks exactly like painted fabric. Or maybe like wet asphalt. And it feels just like painted fabric. Or maybe like sandpaper. When I first laid brush to fabric, I had convinced myself that when it was done it would look like a newly upholstered chair. About midway through the second coat, it was obvious that the final product would be very different from the image in my head. It’s shinier than I expected and scratchier and, although the paint goes a long way in hiding some of the fabric’s defects, a lot are still visible.
I’ve visited it often in the last few hours (I like to go into the room to try and ‘surprise’ it, to see if maybe it’s changed) and, though it’s certainly not perfect, I’ve decided it is leagues better than the battered red. It’s clean and usable and I’ll get to enjoy its lovely shape until I can afford a proper reupholstery job. I’m going to do a little research on the cost of getting the base re-painted and, depending on what I find out, I might have that done in the interim. Based on this experience, I doubt I’ll try painting upholstery again, unless it’s outdoor furniture where stiff and shiny fabric wouldn’t be quite such a deterrent. I should note, however, that there are lots of fabric-painting supporters out there on the interwebs and, if you’re on the fence and thinking about trying it, you should check out their experiences too.
As a palate cleanser for a pretty frustrating DIY, I made the cheerful little polka dot pillow that’s sitting on the chair. It was a perfectly gratifying project: it only took about half an hour and I was able to do it with materials I already had. For the cover, I used this awesome (and easy) tutorial and vintage fabric. What makes the pillow in my opinion? Those cute tassels.
I’ve been on a tassel-tying tear the last two weeks, working on a DIY I plan to share next week. I’ll share a tutorial then too and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll soon be looking at everything in your home and thinking how much better it would look festooned with cheerful tassels.
Thanks for reading this post! Anybody else had a DIY letdown lately?