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Before Meets After: Conserving Our Grecian Couch

November 26, 2014

before-after-couch

Our graceful Grecian couch is about 200 years old and is believed to have been made in the workshop of Duncan Phyfe in New York City. In its time, this couch was considered the best piece of upholstered furniture in a well-appointed parlor of a sophisticated New Yorker. Although these couches seem to be designed for reclining, they were not intended for repose. They were used by fashionable ladies and gentlemen, who sat in a rigid, upright position. Today, we would find sitting on this couch very uncomfortable.

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It is amazing that such a specialized piece survived intact into the early 20th century, when it was acquired by The Henry Ford. This is perhaps due to the flamboyant design of the back and foot rests, which makes it an exceptionally elegant, almost sculptural, piece of furniture. The couch was last reupholstered in 1954 by Ernest LoNano, a well-known furniture restorer of the time. Since then, the upholstery had become quite dirty and worn.

After a long search, a historically-appropriate replacement fabric was selected for the show cover. We began removing the layers of upholstery materials and padding.

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There were numerous layers of fabric, padding, and horsehair (the dark, curly substance), all tied together and tacked to the wood frame.

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We discovered this intriguing tag inside the upholstery—apparently New York law required a strict accounting of materials used.

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Finally, the frame was visible. We were distressed at the number of tack holes in the fragile wood,and needed to devise an upholstery system that would not create more damage!

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We carved Ethafoam, an inert polyethylene foam, to fill the spaces in the wood frame, and cut pieces of Coroplast, an inert plastic board, to cover the back.

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The curved ends were filled in with Ethafoam, carved to make a smooth surface. The Ethafoam sections are held in place by strips of twill tape glued to the Ethafoam, not to the wood.

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Next, twill tape was attached to the frame using a reversible adhesive. The twill tape would later act as a base for the Velcro used to attach the fabric covering, thus protecting the wood from further damage.

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With foam, polyester padding, and a muslin cover, the final contours begin to emerge.

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Being careful to center the stripes, the show cover sections were sewn to shape and Velcro attached.

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Then we discovered that our Coroplast back sections were too thick, and the show fabric didn’t fit right! So thin perforated aluminum sheeting was substituted.

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That turned out to be a much better solution, and we moved on to fitting the seat cushion and securing the back sections.

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In this view of the underside, you can see the plywood platform that supports the seat, and the previously installed metal supports that stabilize the fragile legs.

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The fitted seat cushion is ready to be installed.

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The Velcro at the front edge attaches to the Velcro on the frame.

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The final result — all the stripes line up!

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Back on display in the furniture exhibit.

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Fran Faile is Textile Conservator at The Henry Ford.

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