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Publication Date: 2011-10-24

Design Insights

The Finer Points of Fabric & Upholstery

Quality springs and padding are integral to upholstered furniture, but it’s the fabric and tailoring that will give a finished piece character and flair.

Fabric comes in countless weaves, textures, patterns, finishes, and trims. “Similar to couture fashions, the styles are always evolving and often changing,” notes Mark Boone, who heads London Boone Design and its furniture line, as well as the Mimi London showroom in Los Angeles. “But there are no hard and fast rules to follow. Outstanding upholstery is just like cooking a superb gourmet meal—it’s all about using the best ingredients in the most intelligent way.”

New York City-based Celerie Kemble, a partner in Kemble Design whose namesake fabric line is produced by Holland & Sherry, cautions against tightly woven fabrics that don’t breathe, noting that “upholstery is all about the cush factor—if it doesn’t breathe, it won’t give or perk up properly.” She recommends testing a swatch by trying to blow through it. Feel is equally important. “It can have a grain that literally rubs you the wrong way, so place it against your cheeks and the back of your knees to make sure you like it,” she advises. And use sheen to your advantage, as “it can really highlight a curve or sculptural detail on an upholstered form,” she says.

It’s important, according to Boone, to pick the proper fabric for the piece’s frame and decorative style. A sleek sofa, for instance, calls for a clean look. Opt for something with texture instead of a pronounced pattern because the former can be laid on the furniture lengthwise, which will result in fewer seams. With these streamlined styles, impeccable stitching is paramount. “It should be flawless—straight, uniform, and without any puckers or gathers,” says Boone, who recommends blind stitching on the cushions, something that must be done by hand. “The more minimal it is, the less room for error.”

Dressmaker details, such as skirts, pleats, tufts, and trims can be deployed strategically. Kemble suggests pleats for added visual interest when the back of the furniture is prominent in a space— “and there is almost no room where you aren’t looking at the rear of some piece of furniture,” she notes. She uses trim to define the borders of interior seats and backs, as well as sides of the arm, and nail heads for contrast, especially to highlight different fabrics on the same piece. But she recommends sticking to smaller nail heads that are widely spaced. “The big ones look too much like puffy stickers,” she says.

With skirts, Elissa Cullman of Cullman & Kravis in New York City who has a fabric collection with Holland & Sherry, prefers contrast binding along the bottom edge to run between three-quarters and one-inch wide. For bullion, a twisted ornamental fringe, she says eight inches is optimal so it reaches the floor. Cullman likes both deep and shallow tufting but recommends reserving buttons for the former so comfort isn’t compromised.

Dressmaker details, such as skirts, pleats, tufts, and trims can be deployed strategically. Kemble suggests pleats for added visual interest when the back of the furniture is prominent in a space— “and there is almost no room where you aren’t looking at the rear of some piece of furniture,” she notes. She uses trim to define the borders of interior seats and backs, as well as sides of the arm, and nail heads for contrast, especially to highlight different fabrics on the same piece. But she recommends sticking to smaller nail heads that are widely spaced. “The big ones look too much like puffy stickers,” she says.

-Lisa Skolnik

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