or “Before it can be reborn, it must first be destroyed.”
By Jennie Fischer
This is the story of a very old chair. We were lucky to catch Jennie Fischer in the shop one day as she was working on resurrecting and transforming this hidden gem from the depths of storage into a stunning piece that will help complete the world of Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” this July.
The world of properties is filled with method and an equal measure of madness. Improvisation is often just as important as knowing the tools of your trade. Every project is different, and no matter how many love letters you compose, flowers you arrange, or armchairs you rip apart, something unexpected will inevitably happen that sends a prop maker down an unknown path. This constant learning curve is what fuels my love of props and the wider world of theatre.
As a set designer and prop artist, I have no shortage of love for furniture. The first prop I ever helped build at the ripe age of sixteen was an eccentric couch for a high school production of Twelfth Night. I come from a family of furniture builders and fine carpenters. Needless to say, I was thrilled when a kind of crappy but still beautiful armchair was chosen from our stock to be in this summer’s production of Persuasion. After spending my year building 1960’s chic furniture for Vanya and refinishing elegant pieces for Duchess, I dived in right away into reviving our armchair to its former glory.
Since a properties department often handles a huge amount of work for each show produced, we often find the quickest ways to complete a project. Taking shortcuts is hardly ever the first choice, as it tends to come around and bite someone later, even if it is years later. As I began my journey into this chair, I was determined to not take the easy way out. The topmost layer of fabric, the green stripes, had not been properly tucked and stapled near the back of the seat where it meets the backrest. I could tell right away that this was due to a rushed job, so I set out to correct it. Underneath this striped fabric was, as I expected, a lovely red and gold fabric.
It is common for furniture in theatre to simply be upholstered over instead of reupholstered, since it is faster. I’ve encountered dining chairs with up to seven different layers of fabric on their seats before I could find the foam of the seat itself. Thinking this was the original fabric and I would find foam or stuffing underneath, I kept digging, first taking off the panel of fabric on the back. Here, I discovered tacked on thin cardboard and some old stuffing. This covered the inside of the back of the chair, where I could see strings for button tufting. However, there were no buttons on the front where the strings indicated there should be. I realized then that I was in for several more surprises.
After I removed the red fabric from the seat, I found the stuffing to be similar to a blanket used to protect furniture from moving, and yet another layer of fabric. This was an ancient looking green velvet, though whether it was originally the olive color of the center of the fabric or the bright teal of the edge where a trim would have laid, I have no idea.
This was mimicked on the arm cushions, and was also held down with rusty tacks, so surely this could have been the original upholstery. The green striped fabric had been held down with newer, wider staples; the red, with smaller, older staples; and now the green velvet was attached with tacks. It was like a timeline telling me the history of this chair, the different shows it had been in. This timeline was also shows in the layers of paint as they chipped away from the frame. The original dark wood veneer had been coated with a cream color, then a pistachio green, and then the plain brown it currently was. The most telling thing about the history of this chair, however, was the stuffing.
Modern furniture uses a variety of foams to make cushions, but before mass manufacturing, furniture was stuffed with springs, burlap, and wadded up mounds of horsehair. This is roughly the point where I both donned a dust mask and named the chair Dante. As I ripped away the fabric on the arms, I discovered yet another layer of fabric under the green. This fabric was coated in so much dust I couldn’t really tell what color it was. It also disintegrated in my hands as I pulled it free from the tacks.
My second full day of deconstruction was far slower going since I was working with exclusively pulling out tacks. I managed to remove the horse hair and burlap on the seat to reveal the tangled web of springs and twine underneath. I left the back for last, knowing it would be a complete pain to remove due to the tufting holding the layers of fabric, hair, stuffing, and dust together. I got fed up and cut it out, leaving me with a ring of fabric and tacks to remove. The chair was finally down to just a frame, after two days of work. In all, I pulled out three and a half layers of fabric, a huge amount of horsehair and dust, burlap, enough tacks and staples to redo several other chairs, and a set of springs that looked more like a torture device than a piece of a comfy old chair.
After a bit of research and a well-timed photo on my Facebook page, I discovered a chair that looked extremely similar to the one I was currently performing surgery on in a photo taken in 1853. I count myself lucky and smart that I had used a facemask, otherwise I would have been breathing 160-year-old dust for the better part of sixteen hours.
Finally, it was time to refinish the actual chair. On an ideal timeline, I would have stripped the four layers of paint down to the raw wood, but I had compromises to make. I opted instead for more layers of paint and stain to mimic a wood grain and give the chair an elegant finish. From the original frame, I put a base coat of a light orange, then created a false grain with gel stain, layered that with a dark, regular stain, and then sealed it with a satin finish to give it the gorgeous, deep tone that will be seen under the stage lights. This process took another day, allowing for dry time between the coats.
Next, I created new supports by stretching burlap webbing across the seat and back of the chair. I then cut and trimmed new foam for the seat and back, adding extra padding in the centers and tapering their edges so they may create a nice curve when the fabric is finally added. I then added a layer of batting, to help ease the foam into the shape I wanted. From there, it was finally time to fulfill the purpose of this project, which was just to put different fabric on this chair! This part of the process went together quickly, as it’s always easier to put in staples than it is to take them out. I just cut squares of fabric that fit over the general area I wanted to cover, carefully worked back and forth stapling them down, and then trimmed off the excess. Finally, I added the gimp trim to cover all the staples, and the chair was ready for rehearsal. .
This chair was such a wonderful experience for me, even though it was frustrating and disgusting at some points. I can only hope that the actors and the audience will appreciate this work of art as much as I have, and that my next furniture project will be even more challenging than this one!
Jennie Fischer is an upcoming second year scenic design MFA. She will serve as the scenic designer for The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, the projection designer for City of Angels, as well as the props master for Peter and the Starcatcher, Julius Caesar, and Machinal this next season. When she is not building models or refinishing furniture, Jennie hangs out with her dog Ginger and writes fantasy novels. Jennie is from Durango, Colorado.