I spotted it in the Salvation Army second-hand furniture depot on Glasgow’s Dumbarton Road with the seat right out of it. Suffice to say this was no investment piece; it had neither age nor provenance, patina nor a particular beauty. Manufactured by the British Hillcrest company in the 1950s, it was a swivel and tilt office chair that had seen better times.
Office furniture is ordinarily manufactured to more stringent standards, more robustly constructed than domestic furniture because of the casual, promiscuous nature of its users and the constancy and traffic of office wear. When considered in this context it was evident that here was a piece that had been particularly abused. The teak arms were scuffed and scraped, the joints slack and pliant, and where the upper frame met the seat there was only the semblance of rigidity and strength.
The seat itself, or what was left of it, had almost entirely disappeared. A rubberised pad, indicative of post-war transformations within the upholstery industry, had worn through, but there remained a connection with more traditional methods in the cone springs that sat beneath, not tied into the seat with upholsterer’s twine as one might have hoped and expected, but rather clipped with wire. And beneath all this was a nice industrial touch that appealed to my desire for ‘build’ and ‘durability’: a chunky, metal, valve-type adjustor that once raised and lowered the chair’s height, but which also introduced a quirky, engineered element to the overall design. This was the fluid, functioning, non cabinet-making side of the operation, the bit of the chair that consciously moved away from wood and fabric in favour of heavy gauge steel arms, gas-welded to a central column which in turn connected to a base mount made of beech.
This was no prize booty from the auction room, bought at a snip, no ‘grab-yourself-a-bargain’ treasure from ebay or gumtree, but a rather sorry looking, worn and dated piece of furniture that, even if lots of careful conservation love was spent on its revival, was never going to be fought over by the children. I paid £10 for something that most people would have considered fit only for the skip.
Partly in response to the needless waste of open fires, partly in response to recent austerity measures that have made home heating oil or its alternatives too expensive, fireboxes and stoves have taken off in recent years. Like lots of others who have access to a steady supply of timber, she had also installed it as an economical source of heating in her workshop. But it had a much more important purpose than that. When shellac, a resin secreted by Indian and Thai insects before being processed into flake form for global distribution, is combined with polish and methylated spirits it produces a lacquer. Shades can vary from a translucent ‘white’ or light blond through to garnet, dark brown and black, often produced when dyes, stains and colourants are introduced into the mix. When skilfully applied with a mop or pad to a wooden surface, this French polish as it now is known, requires a room temperature of around 20 degrees centigrade for the spirits to evaporate. Since most pieces of furniture due for conservation require at least two coats of polish, and in some instances many more, it is important that the spirit dries quickly, so that subsequent coats may be applied, gently rubbed down, and re-applied. If a conservator is working on a large piece of furniture in a modestly proportioned workshop it is even more important again: the longer the large piece sits the longer the time before a new piece, and another commission, may be accommodated and work begun anew. The stove therefore serves a number of highly economical purposes in the workshop: not only an environmentally-friendly and cost-effective source of heat, it also helps the polisher to overcome the challenges of fluctuating moisture levels and the natural barriers of damp. In short, it not only saves money, but potentially also makes money.
Although the blend of science and art that is French polishing can be mesmerising, and its application an experience that is often both mesmeric and terrifying, the stove, no less than in a household kitchen or sitting-room, forms the centre of the workshop. The cast-iron, embossed Scandinavian design standard that stands boxily on its four tall legs evokes comfort, solidity and efficiency. Every couple of hours the kettle will be boiled, biscuits shared, chat continued: Ireland and Scotland, relationships and friendships, the conversation wheels round and around, following no particular pattern or thread. However, I am particularly fond of her stories of previously undertaken work, of former colleagues, of on-site commissions, and how clients with painfully disfigured, though sentimentally valuable pieces of furniture, look to her for reassurance, encouragement and guidance. Of course, she never puts it like that; a north of Scotland Non-Conformist modesty too readily intervenes.
Her work is beautiful, her commitment flawless, but you will never hear it from her. She is also utterly democratic in her approach to every piece that crosses the threshold. Heirlooms suggests wealth, possibly privilege, certainly tastefully worked and finished items that are passed from generation to generation because they will either hold their value, or increase in value. And she has had her fair share of just such pieces in need of structural or cosmetic repair, and all of which needed to be readied for the ‘big’ house, manse and museum. But more ordinary pieces are just as carefully scrutinised, their histories contemplated, their existence as talismanic objects that have evolved into items of indescribable attachment – despite their indifferent market values – is just as readily accepted: ogee dressers, Edwardian dining suites, 1960s Scandinavian chairs, as well as smaller items, such as clocks and antique children’s furniture. Projects, like her clients, come in all shapes and sizes.
It is called ‘ripping out’ by some upholsterers, ‘taking down’ by others. And it refers to the moment when a combination of mallets, ripping chisels and tack removers are employed in the removal of old seating and upholstery. We both knew there was nothing worth salvaging or reincorporating from the original 1950s upholstery, so the base was disconnected from the seat, the old fabric cleaned out, the bones of the chair exposed to the elements. But once the chair frame was itself displayed it was all too apparent that the only sensible way forward was to take the entire frame apart, and so with more wrenching and tapping, the frame was reduced to a series of sticks, lengths of beech and teak; some curving, some straight, some show-wood, some carcase. Meanwhile she was working on her own piece, stopping only to offer advice or instruction, while I proceeded with the task before me. This was how we worked. I’d come around every week or so for a few hours to take the project on to the next stage. Meanwhile she had a business to conduct, jobs to be priced and evaluations to be made, and I’d do my best to keep my amateur enthusiasms out of her way. She advised that it was probably best to scrape away all the old glue, then remove the original nitrocellulose lacquer, clean out the blind holes and prepare the frame for reassembly. After a few more visits, after the frame had been re-glued and clamped, it was ready for a new finish. New coats of a water-based lacquer were applied, the base was also stripped and sealed, the only thing left to consider was the upholstery of the seat and back. There is no point in sentimentalising hard labour. There is certainly no point either in glorifying the efforts of those who worked in sweat shops, particularly in the furniture trade, in places like London’s East End where cabinet-makers and upholsterers were readily exploited during the early part of the twentieth century. New materials and developments were just as enthusiastically embraced by the workers as by the management. But new machinery and chair designs, the development of man-made materials, the emergence of stricter health and safety, have all contributed to the erosion of traditional upholstery and cabinet-making methods. In time staple guns replaced hammers and tacks, foam replaced webbing and horsehair, workshops became healthier and cleaner, and the dangers of contracting dermatitis from French polish became a distant memory.
These skills are now really only found in small workshops. Fewer and fewer people know how to polish and upholster, and the furniture trade is, with only some exceptions, utterly ruined in Britain and Ireland. There was a once thriving furniture industry in Navan and around Monaghan town, but it has all but folded. The mighty Ercol factory is still thriving outside High Wycombe, but many of the town’s socially excluded residents were once employees of an extensive furniture industry that no longer exists. Within the past few months, Morris & Co. Glasgow, three generations old, and once proud exhibitors at the Festival of Britain, announced the end of production. Furniture is now made in Eastern Europe or the Far East and shipped here, sometimes complete, sometimes in sections to be assembled in warehouses, on industrial estates, at the edges of cities.
When I visit the workshop I become conscious of a complicated history of change and loss and misfortune. We live in a more globalised world where outsourcing and new supply chains will forever alter where products are made, and how. But while I am aware of these changes, and accept them, I am also glad that there exist workshops such as the one I visit, where conservation and crafts still thrive, and where a cast iron stove allows the spirits to rise.