The Idealist

Modern Heroes: Urban Upholstery

Patrizia and Andrea, Urban Upholstery founders

Upcycling and upholstery

Have you ever noticed an abandoned chair or sofa on the roadside, or felt your heart skip a beat in a junk store when you see an old piece of furniture and imagine how you might bring it back to life? Or maybe you’ve inherited an heirloom piece that, for all you love it, looks too shabby for your home?

That’s where London-based Italian couple Andrea and Patrizia come in, breathing new life into abandoned and half-forgotten furniture pieces from their workshop in Islington’s De Beauvoir Town. Their work ranges from up cycled armchairs they’ve rescued from the street to high-end bespoke chaise longues upholstered with wool and finishes inspired by the work of Tamara de Lempicka.

A love of upholstery

What unites the work is a love and respect for traditional upholstery techniques combined with a keen artistic and architectural eye drawn from their architectural training, collaboration with high profile clients and their love of beautiful, bespoke furniture.

They list some illustrious names amongst their clients including Gianni Versace, London University, and Harrods.

Upholstery is an art  that allows us to interpret the potential in every day life.  We love the challenge of looking at any unwanted furniture and thinking of something amazing to make with it!

We caught up with them in their workshop to find out more about how they work and their experience of working with a wide range of clients.  They see their work as transformative, rescuing unwanted furniture and giving it a new lease of life.

Max Clendinning collaboration
Clients

IDEALIST: Can you tell us more about your recent work, how you came to work with the clients and the results?

UU: We work in a range of different ways depending on the client. We rescue unwanted furniture from the street and buy end of line fabrics. Our workshop is full of pieces and materials we are working on. With some clients the starting point is the piece they want to restore. With others we provide and design the piece that they need for their space. With some architects we create bespoke pieces for their clients. With Max Clendinning (1960s architect, interior designer and fellow Islington resident) we developed the upholstery of several pieces designed by him in the 60’s. He contacted us personally by phone and was very enthusiastic to start a new project at the age of 90.

At the first meeting it was like being back at University with a “big” architect in front us, asking lots of questions about our background, how we work, techniques… and suddenly he said “I knew you were the right people to make my sofa from looking at your website”. He was quite frustrated having worked with craftsmen that didn’t understand the great challenge of upholstering modern design pieces and didn’t pay attention to details. “It appears simple, but is far from it, as it is bespoke to the design.” And so far it has been one of the most rewarding working experience since we opened our business. 

Stand-out pieces

IDEALIST: What’s been your favourite piece to make?

UU: The Baubau sofa with the “Nude on A Terrace” chaise longue are the most challenging pieces that we made so far.   All of the upholstered parts can be removed thanks to the press fasteners, elastic webbing and zip.  When all else is removed, only the beautiful cage of “hand-tied springs” on the seat and back of the sofa remain visible. The Baubau sofa reveals one of the oldest, magical processes, which in the upholstery world is part of the traditional technique, but usually this becomes hidden due to the subsequent layers that are normally added. The cushions have been stuffed mostly with carded wool and the chaise longue with recycled wool.

Baubau sofa
Process

IDEALIST: How did you go about designing it?

UU: For quite some time we have nurtured the idea to experiment with upholstery and reveal to others the magical process that we see. Each time we work on upholstering a traditional sofa it evokes for us the inside of a piano: it is functional, aesthetically beautiful, precisely constructed and very complex to build…. it is an object that continues to reveal itself. It inspired us to transform a traditional Chesterfield sofa to one with upholstery that comes apart to show the springs, cords, webbing and the old frame.

Richmond sunken sofa commission
Heroes

IDEALIST: Who are your design heroes?

UU: We have many heroes between architects, designers and artists that we admire and take inspiration from. But some of the most inspirational and influential figures are those we met when we were at school. Some of our teachers were so dedicated and passionate about designing and upholstery that they have driven us be so creative and to look always for bigger challenges.

Developed over centuries, traditional upholstery involves a range of complex techniques rooted in different periods. Using elements such as springs, natural fibre (horsehair, wool, hessian, vegetable and cotton felt), this technique involves craftsmanship, precision and a good eye for a perfect and enduring finish. Urban Upholstery combines these techniques with more modern approaches. Modern upholstery can involve cutting edge techniques and an expansive range of elements, including rubber foam, elastic webs and synthetic dacron. The elements come in layers allowing for a faster application and flexible shapes.     

Passions

IDEALIST: How did you get into the furnishing and upholstery space?

UU: I have always recycled furniture to decorate my houses, says Patrizia, because I am passionate about old features and objects, reading their memories and transforming them. As designer I approach furniture like miniature architectures, able to create space and to identify with the person that owns them.

IDEALIST: What are you most proud of?

UU: 17 years ago we arrived in UK with such little knowledge of English and 9 years ago we set up our business in London. We are so proud of our achievements. Most of all we are proud that our job has such positive impact on the planet, it is sustainable and we are contributing to reuse and repurpose lots of waste.

Circular Economy

Every year, in UK alone, we throw away 1.6 millions tons of furniture that ends up in landfill. This year at Clerkenwell Design Week in the “Museum of Making”, that was temporarily built in St John Square,  we ran a “tear down” and “upholstery” workshop to promote a “circular economy” from designing to reuse of products when they reach their end of life. In the last two years we worked in collaboration with organizations, like the RSA and The Great Recovery, designers, and manufacturers to make a documentary film “The Survivor Sofa” by the film maker Paul Wyatt. It was a great journey, full of events, fairs and workshops to unite likeminded professionals in a war against the “throwaway” culture. We believe that every contribution counts and it is a step closer to preserving our planet.

Clerkenwell Design Week

IDEALIST: Can you tell us what it’s like to work with the clients you have?

UU: With some of them, especially for commercial projects, it can be stressful, as you work with very tight deadlines, rarely meet the client in person and the work comes together only at the end. With others is like a stroll in the park as they trust us completely. There is a couple in Glasgow that have decorated their entire house with our furniture. But most of them love to take an active part in the process, giving us plenty of feedback and with our help they are managing to convey their ideas into the project. We like to empower them in decision making, after all we are designing for them and they will have to live with the furniture!

Home

IDEALIST: And how did you end up in De Beauvoir Town?

UU: We have been living in Dalston for the last 13 years, and De Beauvoir Town was very familiar to us. We answered an ad in Gumtree and our landlady was the most caring person…at the first phone call we ended up talking for 20 minutes about everything. The shop was big and easy to reach from many areas. The area was full of creative people and studios and still the place where many designers, architects and artists work and live. The neighbours have been very welcoming and supportive and lots of our customers are locals.

You can see Urban Upholstery’s work on their websiteTo see their work up close, you can also visit them throughout the week at their workshop in London: Urban Upholstery, 21 De Beauvoir Road, London, N1 5SF

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  • Stephen hails from the north of England but has spent more of his life in Oxford, Cambridge, Boston and London than anywhere else. He lives in an architect-designed modern house in North London which was featured in themodernhouse.com which he is slowly filling with midcentury finds to complement the bare bricks and skylights. Stephen wishes he could afford all the things we feature on The Idealist.

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