A project in which I avoid ‘a slum of legs’ and also learn to temper my DIY expectations

this is the story of this chair and how sometimes the pictures in my head have nothing to do with reality)

This is the story of this chair and how sometimes my expectations are incongruent with reality

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.

In my online research, I learned that this style of tag suggests the chair was made around 1959

In my online research, I learned that this style of tag suggests the chair was made around 1959

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.

Note the frayed arm, but please ignore the grey cushion; I'll explain that in a moment.

Note the frayed arm, but please ignore the grey cushion; I’ll explain that in a moment.

This picture doesn't show the truly horrific state of the fabric, but it does highlight the poor condition of the chair's base.

This picture doesn’t show the truly horrific state of the fabric, but it does highlight the poor condition of the chair’s base.

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.

If I mention my shame at the kitty litter in the background, will that make it go away?

If I mention my shame at the kitty litter in the background, will that make it go away?

patterning the cushion 2

I had both foam and fabric left over from a previous project.  Because I planned on painting the cushion to match the chair, I was mostly concerned that the texture of the fabrics be similar.

I had both foam and fabric left over from a previous project. Because I planned on painting the cushion to match the chair, I was mostly concerned that the texture of the fabrics be similar.

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.

My hopes were high when I first began

My hopes were high when I first began

Black tulip in the spring sunshine

Black tulip in the spring sunshine

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.

Afternoon sunlight reflecting (unfortunately) off the chair

Afternoon sunlight reflecting (unfortunately) off the chair

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.

tulip chair after with pillow good light

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.

Be still my heart

Be still my heart

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.

#stuffonmycat

#stuffonmycat

Thanks for reading this post! Anybody else had a DIY letdown lately?

18 responses on “A project in which I avoid ‘a slum of legs’ and also learn to temper my DIY expectations

  1. Carol Crump Bryner

    I think it came out amazingly well all things considered. I know that if I could sit outside in that nice sunny yard like the basking chair in your photo I would certainly be happier. Anyway, this made me laugh and I loved it. Such a patient cat you have.

    1. k80bennett

      Thanks Carol! Patience is not usually one of Dean’s virtues, but his desire for the comfy spot outweighed the annoyance of being tasseled 🙂

  2. Katy Gilmore

    Oh Katie – I think this is brilliant, so funny! And I’m not at all sure you can call a project a DIY letdown when it results in such a great post – and a fine black tulip in the spring sunshine!

    Say, I wondered, could you please share the brand of pet paste you used to attach the tassels to your kitty cat? 🙂 I might like to try that myself! Thanks!

    1. k80bennett

      You got it Katy! Tutorial on a homemade tassel adhesive using 37 common ingredients found in your pantry coming up next week!

  3. Susan Glassow

    You are funny! I love the image of your sneaking up on the chair for another lookd and hope of transformation! And, you do own this no slummy legged piece whose shape suits the space…maybe the way it seems to float? I say “brava” for salvage and effort. And that tasseled cat…another shape shifter. . .

  4. bcomingyou

    You are such a delight, Katie. I love reading your posts. I have only recently discovered the wonders of spray-painting! And have taken on some DIY projects all focused around inhaling too many fumes. One of my recent disappointments was spray-painting a covered wicker basket. It looked better beforehand, but I like the results of the wicker wastebasket being spray-painted the same color. Odd, huh.

    I should post some of my DIY projects, too. (Oh, oh! what I meant to say is I too have DIY projects and would love to share them, but that would be another project, and Goddess knows time management is not my forte, so don’t expect to see any pics 🙂

    1. k80bennett

      Scurves! That link is especially hilarious because when Mera and I first started this blog I worried that each post would be worthy of its own ‘nailed it’ meme (the Cookie Monster one is a favorite). Can’t wait to see/hear more about your mad crafting skills fixing up a Silver Lake house. xo

      1. 'Pants

        *sk80 bee (typo, how embarrassing)

        I love that link having tried to make omelets and hash browns in my waffle iron. Epic fail.

        I already have a ‘good score’ submission, will take a picture when I get home.

        xoxo.

Leave a Reply to 'Pants Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *