Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Perfect Covering for the Sought-After Chairs, Part I

One of the pleasures of living at Darlington House has been furnishing it with period-appropriate furniture and decorations.  As many of my readers know, Darlington was constructed in the Federal era, and its rooms--at least in the main part of the house--are entirely (and fortunately) intact from when they were built in 1817.  Our drawing room is the most elegant room in the house and retains its lovely, original neoclassical Federal moldings and plasterwork, which we have painstakingly restored.  We have furnished the drawing room with a mix of American Federal, French Louis XVI, and English Regency antique furniture, dating from the 1790-1815 period.  Well, at least most of it does.  We do have a few later reproductions in the room, but they are early ones with patina, and we have been trading them out over time with original, period examples when we find them and when our budget allows for it.

One of the pair of New York side chairs, c. 1800,
in the "tasteful" upholstery it came in

In collecting antiques for the public rooms at Darlington we have concentrated on furniture made in New York.  That's because Darlington is in the Hudson River Valley (i.e., in New York) and is a high-style house built by people of affluence and sophistication who most likely would have ordered their furniture from the stylish cabinetmakers of New York City or Albany, the other leading source for high-style furniture in the region at the time.  At the end of the day, New York furniture simply looks right in Darlington's rooms.

Off comes the show cover . . .

For some time now we have been on the lookout for a pair of Federal-period, New York side chairs to place on either side of a period card table that sits against one of the walls in our drawing room.  And we were recently fortunate to find such a pair at one of the country's leading dealers (DED take note) of American furniture of the Federal period.

A similar chair to ours in the collection at Winterthur
Image from
American Furniture: the Federal Era

The form of our chairs was popular among cabinetmakers in New York around 1800.  An example of a similar chair with an identical back is in the collection at Winterthur, and appears in Charles F. Montgomery's American Furniture: the Federal Era, the definitive resource for all things pertaining to furniture of that era, and a resource that I consult regularly.  Our chairs are high neoclassical in style, yet retain proportions of the earlier, rococco style, also known as Chippendale.  Now, before you scoff and laugh at Reggie for saying such a thing, imagine these same chairs with a cabriole leg ending in a ball and claw foot, and a back that includes a central splat and shoulders that end in ears, and you will understand what I mean.

One of the chairs, with the horsehair stuffing revealed

We first saw the chairs in a photograph on the dealer's website, and we arranged to visit him and look them over at his house (he deals privately), conveniently located between where Darlington sits and New York City.  We examined them closely (as one must always do when buying antiques of any kind), turning them over and about, and found them to be "clean," with no obvious restorations.  The chairs are not in their original finish, but do have a nice old finish on them.  And that's just fine with us, as we think the mania for original finishes in the antiques world can become a bit of a rabbit hole.   I happily leave the rare furniture that retains a dark, dull, grungy, and supposedly "original" surface to thems thats wants 'em.  I prefer my antique furniture to show a mellow, glowing, old finish, properly cleaned and waxed.  And that's just what our chairs have.  All that needed to be done to them was to reupholster the seats.

Behold the nail head holes!

Although the seats' upholstery was not worn out, it was not to our taste, nor would it "go" with the fabrics we have used on the other furniture in our drawing room.  The chairs' upholstery brought to mind the "tastefully" patterned satins in subtle colors favored for such chairs in the 1950s and 1960s.  A bit too Williamsburg Restoration for our taste.  And I'm referring to a very specific period of the restoration there, for Williamsburg long ago abandoned using the dusty blues, roses, and golds that it was known for in the middle of the twentieth century.  These were colors that blanketed the mid-Atlantic states that Reggie spent much of his childhood in, where it seemed that every suburban bank and civic building was built out of red brick in a pseudo-Williamsburg, colonial-revival style.  You know they type I'm referring to.

A selection of fabrics to choose from . . . 

Once we got the chairs to Darlington we agreed that they were perfect for our drawing room and exactly what we had been looking for.  They were absolutely marvelous in the room.  But that upholstery . . .

. . . and but a few horse hairs to ponder

In short order we removed the offending show covers to reveal the muslins underneath, breathing a sigh of relief when granny's offending gold satin was no more.  Further sleuthing revealed that the chairs had at one point had two rows of nail heads on them, long since removed by the time they came into our possession.   We decided that we would--of course!--return nail heads to the chair's upholstery when we reupholstered them and that we would replicate the almost certainly original pattern of nail heads we found.

And a number of pretty trims to decide among . . .

But then, we wondered, what should we upholster the seats in?  Should we use fabric, or leather, or horsehair?  We were disinclined to cover them with leather, and narrowed our search to fabric and horsehair only.  Boy shopped for options, as well as potential trims, in the showrooms in New York, and came home with a selection to choose from.  We ultimately opted for a slate gray patterned horsehair to cover the chairs, eschewing any trims, and chose nailheads in a bright finish so that they would really stand out against the horsehair.

. . . but which nail head to choose?

We decided to use brightly polished brass nail heads on the chairs because we had done so on our English Regency-period dining room chairs when we covered them with black horsehair several years ago, and we liked the results.  Although we have several Louis XVI chairs in our drawing room that have been upholstered with dull-finished nail heads, we did not think introducing shiny nail heads to the room on our New York chairs would be discordant.

The horsehair that we chose for our chairs
(it may look black, but it's actually slate gray)

It took us several weekends of debate, as well as repeated consultations with our restoration architect and all-around guru, Isaiah Cornini, to decide upon the horsehair that we ultimately selected.  Boy placed an order for two yards of it last week, but it was out of stock and isn't expected to be available for several months.  Once we get it we will send the chairs out to an upholsterer we've worked with before who specializes in period upholstery, employing period techniques and period-accurate materials.

I look forward to sharing the "after" photographs with you, Dear Reader, once the chairs have been refreshed and returned to us.

All photographs, except where noted, by Boy Fenwick


  1. Oh! You leave us hanging! I want to roll around in those fabric swatches but will refrain. I confess I even liked the "tasteful" gold satin. In a Mad Men, ironic way, of course.

  2. Reggie, this post will join my chache of furniture articles that I can use for class. Interesting and excellent post about beautiful chairs and the perfect choice of stuff for the seats.

  3. What wonderful choices. Mr. Dupont would be
    proud. Looking forward to the "after"....

  4. Hi, Reggie -
    You guys made a great choice in that slate grey. It makes an easy harmony with the color of the wood, and does not steal the limelight from those very beautiful, sculptural backs. The chairs will be again the stars of the show, and not their (after all) transient fabric covering. On top of that, or on the sides actually, the bright brass nailheads will be luminous yet restrained jewelry for them. I am very much looking forward to seeing the finished product.
    Best -
    - Mike

    P.S. - I really like those pronounced spade feet they have - not too streamlined yet not too chunky.

  5. The back of the chairs is so pretty. Of course the horsehair-and How I hate to make the perfect pick(I love the horsehair) and then not have the fabric available for months. Can't we find it somewhere else Boy? Can't wait to see!

  6. Reggie, I always love your posts, what I admire the most is the attention to the little things. Sister P. would be proud. You and I do not always see eye to eye on things, but I do want to let you know that I respect what you're doing with the house. Keep it up my friend.


  7. how utterly are so very clever and so particular!!

  8. Reg:

    I'm with you on those grundgy, early American finishes. I am addicted to Antiques Roadshow, and I always nod knowingly when one of the Keno brothers explains that Grandma's 18th century highboy would have been worth millions had she not had a nice French polish applied which has reduced it's value to firewood. I'm with Grandma- I like to see a nice shine to things.

    And nothing beats horsehair- the real McKoy. It is great looking and indestructible. It should be the first choice for every dining chair out there- for those lucky enough to afford it. As you know first hand, they don't exactly "give it away". And sadly, long lead times seem to be the way of the world now in the decorating world. But is is worth the wait.

  9. Dear Reggie, Your chairs are most elegant and will, I am certain look wonderful in your chosen fabric. I think that the slate grey is a perfect colour and is a most sophisticated choice.

    I am fortunate to have a wonderful upholsterer in Budapest who has just about recovered everything I own by now. It is so good when you find a real craftsman upon whom one can rely for a high quality finish and an attention to detail that is so important when dealing with antiques.

    I anticipate the 'finished' chairs with excitement!

  10. The perfect decision Reggie. I love the design of the chair, the slate gray horsehair and am very excited to see the result. (Although not sure I can remain excited for That length of time!)

    Art by Karena

  11. Great teaser! Cannot wait to see the outcome!


  12. Rats! I hate waiting!

    Reggie, I'm curious (OK, nosey), when Darlington House was built in 1817, was it used as a primary residence or a country retreat? It seems like that area would have been a long haul from a city of any size.

  13. Dearest Reggie, You have once again educated this ignorant Hollywood resident. Thank you for showing me the the real thing and your purity of thought in choosing the chairs and fabric. This is why I read your blog. Plus, you always somehow, make me laugh.

  14. Reggie,
    I'm once again envious. Can't wait to see the "after" pictures. I know the chairs will be beautiful when recovered, though, since they're already beautiful in their current condition. I've always found New York furniture from this period to be the most elegant ever produced in this country. I concur with you (and Magnus) when it comes to preserving those original, untouched finishes. I can't imagine any early 19th century cabinet-maker wanting to see the carefully selected wood grain on one of his masterpieces buried under a two centuries old layer of dull, faded shellac and built-up dirt. Just down the street from here is the federal styled home of States Morris Dyckman known as Boscobel, and one of the reasons I love that house so much - aside from the fact that it's simply gorgeous - is that the home and all of its furnishings are kept in the same pristine condition they would have been in when the Dyckman family first moved in. It gives one a very accurate picture of how a sophisticated home from that period would have been furnished & decorated.

  15. I love the pattern in the horsehair you chose. Looking forward to seeing the finished chairs in the drawing room.

  16. LPC: And in a Ma Men episode the covering the chairs came in would be appropriate, but not--I'm afraid--at Darlington House.

    Blue: Reggie is honored!

    Barabara, Little Augury, Bumby Scott and YaH: Thank you

    Mike: Thank you, the spade feet are one of the features that attracted us to these chairs

    Magnus: Yes, one does love horsehair. And it is the perfect covering for one's dining chairs, as it is exceedingly easy to wipe up a guest's (or one's) spills leave narry a stain behind.

  17. All: Please excuse the typos in Reggie's comments this morning. He was, he admits, a trifle-over served last night at the book signing party Liz O'Brien had in honor of Pauline Metcalf and her marvelous book, "Syrie Maugham". Reggie had an absolutely lovely time there (some might say a "too-lovely" time there) and happily spoke with lots of people he knew, and met a number of people that he didn't, much to his pleasure.

  18. Reggie, I'm really looking forward to seeing the result. The decision-making you've gone through (along with choosing picture frames) is one of my favorite occupations. The fabric you've chosen is both period and very contemporary - I hope you photograph the details. ... Mark

  19. Oh, dear, you made me giggle about the Williamsburg trend. Yes, I jumped on that bandwagon and did all the fabrics. One day I walked into my living room and pulled down the jabots and tabots (sic) and said it was time to get a fresher look. Kept all the lovely dark wood antique furniture and the upholstery will soon be much more interesting thanks to my upholstery goddess who works miracles. I realized my living room looked like a funeral home. (I am at the age where I am suddenly attending many funerals).

  20. Edith Hope: Do you send all your furniture to Budapest for covering? I mean, from England? That seems decadently stylish. I love it! Our upholsterer is but an hour or two away by automobile.

    Karena and Eddie: Thanks

    Patsy: Darlington was the primary residence of all of its occupants until we bought it. It is in what had been the county seat, until the late 1800s when it moved to another town. There are houses near ours that have always been county seats for gentry, but ours was always what the academics call a ouse of the "Upper Middling," and not gentry.

    HFK: Thanks much, Reggie aims to be both informative and amusing when the subject matter allows.

    Anon 10:34: Thank you, Reggie is familiar with and adores Boscobel, and has referred to it in one or two posts -- see "Winning Bid: Our New Candelabra" post.

    MNH: Thank you!

  21. MNH and MDR: Thank you

    Anon 10:46: Ah, I am sure it looks the better for it!

  22. The pair of New York Federal chairs are delicate and beautiful!!! I love New York Federal furniture and have a few NY Federal chairs myself.

  23. Absolutely perfect!

    How rare!



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