Illustration by Ron Meyers

IT MAY BE HARD TO BELIEVE, BUT THE world's first interior designers worked very hard for a living. Long before Architectural Digest turned elitist lifestyle into fashion for the masses, long before interior design was the profession of choice for homosexuals, and long before Marie Antoinette built a peasant village to play in at Versailles because she liked to dress up as a milkmaid, there were people known as upholdsters, an old English term for tradesmen who provided hangings, coverings, cushions and the like. Before the word even existed, the forebears of upholdsters spent a lot of time in damp caves covering floors with animal skins and securing them with rocks.

In the distant past, upholdsters traded in their skins for tapestries, covering the walls of huge stone castles to keep out the damp. Then they started to line royal carriages with tufted silks, because the Louises and Madame Pompadours of the world got chilly when traveling from palace to palace. It was only a few hundred years ago that the upholdster's product morphed from an invention of necessity into a middle-class item of comfort and decoration — hence the new slang word upholstery.

I first fell in love with upholstery as a young boy. My best friend was the son of penniless Italian immigrants who came to America with nothing but a set of beautifully carved chairs and a sofa that had been in their family for seven generations. In the early '60s, they had the family furniture overupholstered in clear vinyl to preserve the aging brocade underneath. I was awestruck, and used to sneak into their parlor to luxuriate in these grand old pieces and their plastic-covered silk. Being an arty budding homosexual myself, I thought it was very chic. Eventually I went off to college, and my best friend went off to Vietnam. Six months later he was killed, and then, because his family was so nobly romantic, I inherited an armchair that was to have been his.

I was now a heartbroken art student with a mission. As an act of love, I decided to re-upholster the chair by myself. I ditched the now-cloudy vinyl and gingerly began to remove the nail heads that secured the gimp, which is the decorative strip of fabric tape used to cover the edges where the fabric is nailed to the woodwork. Then I carefully removed the old fabric so I could use it as a pattern, only to find another layer of very worn but even more beautiful silk underneath. What an amazing life this chair had had. I got down to the late-18th-century linen lining, some cruddy old stuffing, and finally a layer of horsehair still as good as new. Now all I had to do was re-enact these steps in reverse.

The year was 1966, and everything was psychedelic. The new fabric was a red-and-green Day-Glo version of old French tapestry. First I sanded down the ancient frame and sprayed on a few coats of red enamel. I kept the horsehair, which had frozen into its own shape, and covered it with thin layers of foam. Then, with the old fabrics used as examples, a new lining was cut that went back into place with the original nails I had saved. Finally, I slowly cut into my fabric with the new scissors my mom had sent for the occasion. I even made my own welts (the thin strips of fabric filled with cord that are sewn between seams of fabric, as where the side of a cushion meets the top or bottom of a cushion — welt fabric is always cut on the bias to make it bend better on curves). The new fabric was finally nailed and glued into place. Even as recently as the '60s you couldn't find gimp in strong colors, so I found some old beige gimp, dyed it bright green and tacked it on with modern red thumbtacks. My 200-year-old chair was starting a new life in a 20th century dorm room.

Today, I am an interior designer with a passion for upholstery, living in a society where everything is disposable. But a well-made frame has a life of its own. The important thing is to know what you want, and what the seat wants to be. Everything else is up for discussion with an upholsterer: Should the seat be hard and formal, soft and squishy, or something in between? To trim or not to trim? Many pieces from the 1930s on don't require trim, but you can add a contrasting welt, fringe or, my favorite, ball-fringe, to jazz it up. Seating with exposed wood usually requires some sort of gimp, which could be a classic woven gimp (these days there are tons to choose from) or even a “self-welt” made from your fabric. All the fun is in the details, and the world of upholstery has a lot of rules that are dying to be broken.

For instance, fabrics usually run vertically, following the continuous length of the bolt, and that works just fine in most situations. However, you can also “railroad” the fabric, which means run it horizontally — this makes for a cool look on sofas, especially if you're using a stripe of any kind. The bottom line is that for the same or often less dollars than the cost of a questionably built new chair or sofa that only comes in beige from a trendy store, you can create something personal and remarkable. The best way to find a good upholsterer is to get recommendations, and to check out the quality of work.

My old chair was a major turning point. I learned about both the beauty of things and how to make things beautiful. I learned about acts of love. I gained a great respect for the art of the craftsman. I developed a fascination for historical perspective that to this day affects everything I do and see. Finally, I learned about perception, having seen that chair in all its incarnations from 18th-century elegance to 20th-century pop icon. Fashion changes constantly, but quality and comfort never go out of style. My old chair is now covered in a tropical hand-painted velvet that I found at a flea market, and is living happily in Florida at the home of my long-gone best friend's kid brother. You can't keep a good chair down!

West Coast Trim at 466 S. Robertson Blvd. has great gimp and a magnificent collection of two-tone ball fringe; (323) 272-6569. Residence Upholstery, 4464 W. Adams Blvd., (323) 731-9991, does quality work.

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