Sitting on a reupholstered time-capsule of traditions

By Frances Welch

A wobbly leg on a wingback chair will soon be screwed tight and a broken, wooden underbelly glued back together. The wear and tear on each University-owned piece of furniture will eventually be hand-fixed.

The art of upholstering is becoming a rarity. Younger generations continue to prefer buying new products rather than restoring the craftsmanship that molded their original forms.

The University Furniture Shop, once home to 13 reupholsterers and restorers, has dwindled down to less than five.

Established in 1943 by a man named Bill Johnson, the Furniture Shop would soon become the University’s main upholstery and repair hub. Following World War II, the University no longer was able to provide funds for replacing furniture, instead opting for repairs.

The furniture restorers at Johnson’s shop became responsible for renovating and reupholstering almost every piece of furniture on campus — in residence halls, office desks and chairs, classroom furniture, lounge furnishings, University antiques and various other upholstery and renovation work. All of which are still responsibilities of the shop today.EJ

The Furniture Shop is unique compared to its counterparts that make up the remaining shops in Facilities & Services.

“Most of us are third-generation reupholsterers. It’s a family trade,” said Tracy Collom, the University Furniture Shop Supervisor.EJ “I’ve been doing this since I was 12, but it’s a dying art.”

It’s a reality that is tough to swallow for Collom, who has taken notice to the Union not utilizing the Furniture Shop that helps maintain original pieces, but instead are now buying new.

This past year, the Union replaced all old furniture in the main lounge, an area that according to David Guth, assistant director for Facilities at the Illini Union, and Rebecca Salzman, assistant to the director of the Illini Union, needed updating immediately.EJ

Guth said the majority of the previous furniture had lasted since the 1960’s, but wouldn’t have been possible without the Furniture Shop reupholstering and refurbishing each piece.

“It’s the living room of the campus,” Salzman said, comparing the foot-traffic of the Union to that of a major train station.

Any day of the week between 7 a.m. and midnight, couches and chairs will be in use almost 100 percent of the time. Rooms such as the South Lounge and Pine Lounge double as event rooms, where the furniture is stacked and moved elsewhere, sometimes twice or more in a day.

To sustain this, the durability of the furniture is crucial, but its material makeup is of equal importance. The material needs to be readily accessible, since the lifespan of a new piece is about five to seven years before a repair needs to be made.

But the longevity of the skeleton of new, manufactured furniture is more complex than it used to be. It’s designed to be replaced with an entirely new piece of furniture, rather than a small limb, neither price effective or eco-friendly in the long run.

To play devil’s advocate, Guth brought up an important counterpoint that furniture can only endure so much refurbishing until it breaks down indefinitely.

Similar to that of the human body, it can only be restructured so many times until it isn’t physically possible to restore anymore.

The rationale behind purchasing new furniture was realistic. If one were to take a trip down to the basement of the Union, where the previous furniture is being stored, it’s hard to grasp that the groupings of mismatched loveseats and club chairs were sitting in the main lounge of the Union less than a year ago. Foam coming out of ripped vinyl, broken legs and extremely loose wooden skeletons, it’s visibly clear that some sort of update was necessary.

Although wear and tear comes with natural evolution from years of usage, repairs are happening faster, and modern technology has students plugged in to phones and computers, becoming more unaware of ripping, scratching and dirtying the furniture.

“Students don’t take care of the furniture like they used to,” Collom said.

But to Paul Kapp, associate professor of Architecture, furnishings for traditional and non-traditional use are being manufactured today in reaction to younger generations.EJ

“The way students (relax, and their social interaction) has changed,” Kapp said. “Students aren’t using typewriters anymore, they’re using laptops. Chairs are more moveable and study habits have changed. Modern day furniture has to play off that particular style.”

Kapp also believes that while it’s important to update furniture with the way students congregate, it is also of equal importance to maintain the traditional aesthetic of what the Union represents, something that many believe was not taken into consideration when choosing the current furniture.

“There was a purpose and a spirit for the way (University buildings) were (originally) furnished,” Kapp said. “Making subtle changes, those are moments which multiple generations have experienced. Transgenerational memory is important. You just miss some of the ambience now.”EJ

Original furniture is everywhere on the University campus. Libraries, classrooms, hallways, random rooms scattered throughout campus — pieces that make up a time capsule of styles that encapsulate the decades of aesthetic transformation.

Wingback chairs and loveseats accented with nailhead trim, details seen in the previous Union furniture, were conducive to the Colonial Revival architectural style of the building, according to Kapp.

Now, without any structural interior updates to the Main Lounge of the Union, the modernity of the new orange and blue chairs have individuals such as Kapp scratching their heads.

“When the state doesn’t have a budget, that’s when you get creative,” Kapp said.

Busey-Evans residence hall, built in 1916, has purposely kept the architectural Georgian Revival integrity of the building distinguished with the interior and furnishings.

Melissa Marriott, interior decorator for Housing, furnished the majority of Busey-Evans with its original furniture restored by the Furniture Shop.EJ

In 2005, Busey-Evans lounge underwent renovations to update the design of the room to make it conducive with modern day accessibility, but also maintaining the integrity of the building.

To achieve the original style, Marriott pulled historical photos of the residence hall from the Student Life Archives, making sure the changes weren’t drastically different.

“We keep in tune with the building, but also blend the old with the new,” Marriott said. “I don’t think we could survive in Housing without the Furniture Shop. They save us a lot of money long term.”

The longevity of the furniture in Busey-Evans, some of which is over 100 years old, is not only important to minimizing University waste, but exposes students to the long, rich history that the University was founded on.

In the University President’s House, a 14,000-square-foot Georgian Revival home completed in 1931, the furnishings were specially made by Chicago’s Watson and Boaler Co.EJ

The house came with a novel-sized hardcover book, each page enclosing a single, hand-drawn sketch of a piece of furniture, the name of the piece and what room it was intended for.

When Dena Bagger, director of special events of the President’s House, walked through the entirety of the home, each page she turned revealed a piece that was sitting in front of her, still in use and in mint condition.EJ

Although the furniture used in the home does not receive near the amount of use that the residence hall and Union furniture receives, the style has remained primitive and the condition presents itself as untouched.

“Older furniture can be repaired whereas most new pieces cannot,” Collom said. “They can be strengthened from within, which is adding to the longevity of the piece, and any new parts needed are made in our fully furnished Mill Shop. Here at the University, if we are truly geared for a greener tomorrow, then Restore, Recycle and Reuse should ultimately be the methodology of today.”

When the Furniture Shop became aware of the Union purchasing new lounge seating from an outside source, Kimball Office, Collom said they felt let down.

“Knowing that if we had more of an opportunity to choose our own fabrics, allowed to put our own personal spin on what they have, we could showcase their entryways to give it the ‘Wow’ factor,” Collom said. “Understandably, they didn’t want the building to become old and stuffy feeling like a museum where everyone was afraid to sit on anything, but perhaps the location they chose for the ‘new, modern’ furniture could have been planned (in) a way to better blend the old (with the) new.”

According to Guth and Salzman, the change of aesthetic was what the students wanted, a student opinion heard from the president of the Illini Union Board, Jaylin McClinton, a senior in LAS, and the rest of his board.EJ

“Students wanted new furniture, more cushions, more comfort,” McClinton said.

But for Collom and the rest of the Furniture Shop, he hopes they can continue their mission in preserving historic furniture pieces that are dispersed throughout campus.

“This is what we are here for, considered to be the best at and the knowledge of what we feel will stand the test of time,” Collom said.

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