I have had my eyes opened to the world of upholstery. As part of Kirstie Allsopp’s Handmade Christmas Fair, I attended a Super Theatre with the Ministry of Upholstery. My plan was to pick up some tips to help me breathe new life in to a footstool that I acquired at an antiques fair.
Anthony Devine owns the, Manchester based, Ministry of Upholstery with business partner and chalk paint expert, Susie Milner. I got the chance to ask him a few questions.
Where did your passion for interiors, and upholstery in particular, come from?
It came from my Mum & Dad, where all the best inspiration comes from! My Mum has always had a passion for interiors. She worked in interiors and growing up, our house was constantly evolving and changing as the family grew. My Mum would have the ideas and it would be my Dad’s job to put the ideas into practice. This is where I came in. I would always help my Dad with the jobs so I learnt a lot about DIY and building from a young age.
So I always knew I wanted to do something linked to interiors and originally thought I’d like to do cabinet making. However when I went to college to have a look at the cabinet making course, it was at a point when it was becoming more machine based and less hands on. Having always used my hands to make and create I decided cabinet making wasn’t for me and it was actually my Mum who suggested upholstery!
How did you learn upholstery?
I signed up the next day after the college visit and two weeks later I started my 3 year apprenticeship! I started at the bottom and spent many an hour doing the same task over and over again so that I learnt each element involved in a piece. It was hard work and sometimes brain numbing but I’m very grateful for the grounding I had. I think going into a craft or labour at a young age is absolutely essential for both the learner and for the future of the country!
It makes me happy to see that old school apprenticeships are making a comeback and that the current government are putting some serious focus back on young people learning skills, which would otherwise die out!
What was the first upholstered piece you made?
I customised an old wingback chair frame and put speakers in the wings! This was before the days of Bluetooth speakers or iPods and I wish I had sold my idea! My best friend still has the chair.
You have produced and installed furniture for some well known companies, ranging from Harvey Nichols to the QE2. What’s the most interesting / memorable piece you have created?
I have a couple. It’s the pieces where I get to have a go at putting what’s in my head into action! I had a customer who I managed to convince needed The Last Supper across the back of a set of dining chairs. I had the image digitally printed onto fabric, when digital printing was in its infancy, and upholstered the backs of 6 dining chairs. The seats were all in a different colour and I painstakingly covered all 6 chairs in gold leaf! It was extravagant and crazy but very freeing.
My other favourite piece, whilst quite tame in comparison, is special for a different reason. After not having a sofa at home for a good 6 months, I finally found time to make a sofa for the house. When my partner and I first met I taught her how to make an upholstered button, which she then carried round in her purse. When I made the sofa, which was a 7 foot long mid-century grey wool sofa that I made from scratch, frame and legs included, I took the button from her purse and used it on the arm. Needless to say she was very touched.
Where do you get your inspiration? What sort of things are inspiring you at the moment?
As I now find very little time to create my own upholstery, I now take inspiration from my students! Their enthusiasm and the smile on their face when they see their transformations coming together before their eyes is what does it for me! Being able to pass on the skills I’ve honed for nearly 20 years means more to me than creating a new sofa or chair.
Mass produced furniture is relatively cheap and easy to come by nowadays. Why should people be interested in upcycling and upholstery?
There is no substitute for that feeling you get when you take an old, unloved and decrepit, but well-made chair, strip it back to its bare bones and then lovingly rebuild it bit by bit. Furniture used to be built to last and being able to have the skills to increase the life-span of something that would otherwise go to landfill is an incredibly amazing thing to be able to do. We live in a throw-away culture where things are easy come, easy go. Some pieces of furniture have a story to tell and to be able to keep that story going shouldn’t be undervalued. This is why it is so important for me to be able to pass on my skills for the future!
Upholstery has become an accessible skill for people wanting to create bespoke and personalised pieces of furniture. How have the techniques changed over the years to make it a craft that we can now try at home?
With the modernisation of upholstery, and by that I mean replacing hammer and tacks with staple gun and staples, substituting springs for webbing, it has opened the door for people to be able to produce an end product that has a professional finish and with a fairly low set up cost. Learning traditional upholstery is a real craft, which takes years to truly master. Ministry of Upholstery is a modern upholstery school, we don’t compromise on quality and comfort or appearance but we believe that teaching in a modern way, whilst still retaining some of the traditional methods where applicable, enables even the most inexperienced of our students to go on to create amazing results of which they can be proud.
Which craft-room essentials can you not live without?
Well other than the obvious like my staple gun, I’d say I can’t live without a kettle and my trusted Sharpie!
I live in Manchester and blog about all the exciting and different things going on in the city. What was it about Manchester that inspired you to bring your business here?
I have to be honest, in the first instance it was a girl! But I stayed because of its vibrancy and its undeniable indie side. Places like the Northern Quarter, that promote individualism and handmade crafts, pave the way for people like our students. In Salford, where our workshop is based, the arts culture is booming and growing by the day. Being a part of that is exciting.
What’s the best and worst thing about living and working in Manchester?
Well the down to earth, friendly northerners are the best. I’m a Derby lad so it was always important to me stay up north! I guess the traffic is the worst thing but I don’t actually drive so even that isn’t too bad.
How did you become involved with The Handmade Fair?
We were invited by Annie Sloan to be one of the experts at the Hampton Court fair and we had sell out workshops down there. So when we were asked to partake again but in our home city there was only every going to be one answer!
What’s the most important tip that you are hoping people will take away from the weekend?
Use Dacron (or Wadding) for that professional finish. Either that or book on one of our courses!
Find out more
Well Anthony, you certainly got the Dacron message across at the weekend! I’ll be using it in my project. Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.
The Ministry of Upholstery is the UK’s leading upholstery school, which operates from a studio in Salford. You can sign up to a wide range of courses in upholstery and painting with Annie Sloan chalk paint. I think they’d make fantastic Christmas presents!
Have you ever tried upholstery? Let me know in the comments below.
Did you miss my review of The Handmade Christmas Fair?
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