Several months ago I found a bentwood chair in a thrift store. It had a fantastic mid-century shape and, aside from being filthy, it was in excellent condition. Not so much as a scratch on that vinyl upholstery.
But, oh, that vinyl upholstery. The chair is a classic 1950s design by Thonet, bearing a striking—and likely not coincidental—resemblance to the molded plywood chairs by Charles Eames. This particular example is a 1980s or 90s issue and with mauve vinyl that just screamed nursing home. So, I dug into my fabric storage tote and looked for something a little less institutional and more appropriate for the design of the chair. I settled on an orange patterned fabric left over from this wire frame ottoman I did back in July.
I wanted this project to be one of our 15 Minute Makeovers, but removing the original vinyl blew that time budget three times over. Because of the very curvy nature of the seat and seat back, I wanted to remove the vinyl without tearing it so I could use it as a template. That meant prying each absurdly long staple out one at a time. Hundreds of times. Hundreds. It was worth it though: after ironing the vinyl I had a perfect template. Negotiating the curved shape of the back also took some time. The fabric was less stretchy than the vinyl, so it took some fancy folding and staple work to get it taught. To make the project faster and to clean up the look a little bit, I decided not to use any welting as it originally had.
It’s amazing to me how small changes can really transform a piece. Less than half a yard of fabric took this chair from cold and antiseptic to warm and friendly. Now it really looks like a mid-century designer chair.
Although Charles Eames is the crowned king of 20th century molded plywood furniture, Michael Thonet (pronounced toe-net, rather than tho-nay) actually pioneered the use of bentwood in mass-produced furniture design in the mid-19th century. His iconic Coffee Shop No. 14 chair designed in 1859 is often lauded as “the chair of chairs” and is still in production today by Thonet Germany. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s Thonet Industries Inc. U.S.A. produced several modern and contemporary lines of residential and contract furniture, including many molded plywood pieces.