An interior designer dramatically transformed four chairs destined for the dump, showing how easy it is to keep Grandma’s chair out of the landfill.

chair-opening“I’ve always had a chair fetish,” admits Barbee James, owner of Details Design Studio in Boulder.

Who better to turn to, then, when I inherited an ugly 1960s wing chair from my mother-in-law? The plaid (!) chair had a cushion harder than a rock, and the whole thing weighed a ton. I quickly banished the chair to the basement and considered throwing it out, but it was too heavy to lift alone. So there it sat until I had a chat with James, who suggested, “Don’t be mean to the chair; be green.”

Turns out, older furniture can be reupholstered, reshaped and made comfortable for less than the price of buying comparable furniture new.

“These grandma chairs are made of hardwood, which you can’t find today except in exclusive stores,” James explains. “They also have good springs, good frames and better mechanisms than chairs made today.” And, she points out, chairs that end up in landfills take a long time to decompose “with all the foam, fiberfill and glue in them.”

“If you can upgrade it, change it, make it comfortable, I think there’s no reason to buy new when you can redo,” James says.

So I trucked my chair to her studio (with the help of two people!) and waited for James to work her magic. Not only did she revamp my chair, she gave new life to two slipper chairs that had been drawn on with black magic marker. She also redid a 1971 La-Z-Boy recliner she bought at a thrift shop.

Furniture chains typically sell chairs and sofas made of particleboard, “so you can’t reupholster them, because there’s no way to tack in the fabric,” James explains. “It’s what I call ‘throwaway’ furniture, and I think to be a conscious person on the planet today we can’t be buying throwaway products. We need to be buying sustainable products.”

James is ready to tackle anyone’s trash chair as long as it has quality bones. “If we can keep Grandma’s chair out of the landfill, we’re going to have a better future,” she says.

Here’s how my wing chair, the two slipper chairs and the La-Z-Boy recliner went from hideous to heavenly, via James’ expertise and the services of Jesse Carreon, owner of Tuck-N-Tack Upholstery in Denver.

New Wings
Wing chair before
Wing chair before

The problem with this early-’60s modified-wing chair was the ugly plaid material, the enormous weight and the rock-hard cushion. “It had the Southwest color palette—blue, pink and green—that was really popular then,” James says. The chair had been reupholstered many times, but instead of removing the old fabrics the upholsterers just kept covering them over and packing in more batting. “When you do that to an upholstered chair, it’s going to make it really, really stiff,” James says.

“Down is the most comfortable, and it’s really sustainable.”She and Carreon “contemporized” the chair by removing the skirt, trimming back the curved arms, replacing the spindly wooden legs with substantial square legs, and reupholstering it in a tan, medium-grade Robert Allen chenille. “There was a lot of fluff curve on the chair that we took away,” James explains. “There was curve on the back, the arms curved, everything was just curvy. So we straightened it.” As for the rock-hard cushion, James replaced it with down-wrapped foam.

Wing chair after
Wing chair after

The cost was around $900, “but if you bought a new chair of comparable quality it would be at least $1,400,” James says.

“When I saw these chairs in front of a Salvation Army drop-off station, I knew no secondhand store would reupholster them because they don’t have the resources,” James says. Drawn on with black magic marker, the chairs were prime landfill candidates. “So I decided I’m keeping these chairs out of the landfill.”

Elegant Slippers
Slipper chair before
Slipper chair before

With good frames, down cushions and 100-percent cotton velvet fabric, “they were good-quality chairs,” James determined. “I’m sure there are a lot of chairs the Salvation Army throws out on a regular basis. A lot of people just dump things and run when the stores are closed, and when they open their doors what are they supposed to do with something like these chairs? No one would have bought them.”

Slipper chair after
Slipper chair after

The cost was $700, but if you bought these chairs new today, “they’d cost about $1,500 apiece because of the down and silk materials,” James says.Slipper chairs are traditionally elegant, so James elected to cover the chairs in a Wesco silk-drapery fabric. “It’s a more contemporary fabric,” she says, “but if you were going to sit in them every day, I would use a silk-wool combination.” She and Carreon also changed the ruffled skirts to plain skirts, and swapped out the 100-percent down cushions for a down-foam combination because originally when you sat in them, “You just went straight down.”

Lazin’ Around
Recliner chair before
Recliner chair before

James found this slim-line La-Z-Boy recliner at the Hospice Care & Share Thrift Shop in Boulder. “They were having 50-percent off everything in the store, so I bought that ugly chair for $12.50,” James recalls. “People said to me, ‘That’s not even worth $12.50. Why are you buying that chair?’ But I had a vision when I saw that chair. When I sat in it, it was pretty comfortable—ugly, but I knew I could make it work.”

The chair had previously been reupholstered, as it sported a Southwestern-style pink, green and blue fabric that was popular in the ’80s, but a tag inside the chair identified it as being built in 1971. “When I was looking for fabric to cover this, I wanted something fun and lively,” James says. She settled on a medium-grade Robert Allen fabric with little circles and metallic threads. “I call it the Cheerio chair,” she says.

She and Carreon made the chair contemporary by getting rid of the separate pillow back and removing the curved arms and skirt. They also made it more comfy by adding a few springs.

Recliner chair after
Recliner chair after

“These chairs are very comfortable,” she says. “I’d like to get my hands on a few more La-Z-Boys.” The cost was $950, but the same chair today “would probably cost upward of $1,500 and it wouldn’t be made as well,” James says.

“When you’re buying a new chair, don’t think, ‘Oh, I like it and I can throw it away when I get tired of it.’ Think about buying a quality chair that you can cover when you get tired of it instead of throwing that chair in the landfill. There’s so much stuff in landfills. It’s just awful.”

Refurbishing a chair
Refurbishing a chair