This piece was a curbside find from the South Coast. My sister has developed a habit of txting me when she sees things. It was beautiful but it was very old and had obviously been damp. It’s probably the first piece that I stripped right back to the frame and then built up. A lot of time I try to manipulate what’s already there and bolster it.
There’s a handwritten mark in there from the person who upholstered it before, their name and the date. I think it was in the 60s that it was last done. So I wrote my name and date in there, which was the first time I did that. It’s chair archeology. I always find something cool in every piece, a religious token or a penny, half a deck of poker cards, a guitar pick. In this one I found a name and a date. The chair had a really cool stuffing line across the back and I really liked it…I started out with her original line and took it higher and made it asymmetrical. So it starts where it always started and ends somewhere new.
I bought a panel of printed “Tree of Life” by Klimt and it was mostly the color scheme in that that got me excited. I’m forever buying panels and pictures that don’t fit on chairs because that’s not what they’re designed to do proportionally, so there’s actually only a small part of Tree of Life on there. I was looking for things that were orange and yellow and ornate. I had a panel of Indian embroidery with mirrors, and an old skirt that I made in my early 20s from my Beppe’s bedspread. (Beppe is Friesian for grandmother. My mother’s family is from the Netherlands.) I couldn’t let my Beppe’s bedspread go to waste but I couldn’t use it as my bedspread because it wasn’t my aesthetic so I turned it into a skirt and now sections of it have made it into this chair.
The outside arm is Cambodian or Laotian embroidery. A friend went traveling and brought me back a giant bedspread. It’s not the kind of thing you should put on furniture technically speaking because it will wear through in about a year, being very thin. So I’ve layered it over an arm of red velvet so that when it wears through and goes threadbare, there’ll be something beautiful underneath. The other side is a skirt that I made when I was probably 18 out of remnants, old shirts and skirts and bits I’d picked up. It’s a piece full of nostalgia but also I see a sunrise.
I grew up in a ceramics studio. My mom’s a ceramist and painter and my dad’s an architect and a furniture maker. There are two studios in my house. All three kids make stuff and design. There was never a time when we didn’t entertain ourselves that way. My mom taught me to sew when I was 7.
For a long time I’ve called it a compulsion rather than a business because there are things that I can’t leave on the footpath. Obviously I don’t need any more chairs. You see the potential in something and you know you can make it something that other people will value again, and you can’t pass it up because you know that not everyone can do that or see it until you’ve had your way with it.
Overwhelmingly, the thing that I’m interested in is the character that we wear into the furniture and the idea of building attachment from people to their furniture. If it’s got your grandmother’s bedspread on it or the right geometry for you, you’re less likely to leave it on the curb, or upgrade to something more fashionable. So it’s promoting materiality, but in a good way.
I count my professional career from 2009, when I sold a piece to someone I didn’t know. Then I got my first commission. Most of my work comes from word of mouth. People approach me with a piece or a missing piece. “I need a rocking chair or “I have my grandmother’s chair.” And then we work out what’s important to them aesthetically. Sometimes there’s a painting in the room, or it has to be purple, or it has to have text. All my clients to date have given me a lot of license to do what I want to do.
Is it satisfying? Beyond belief. It’s satisfying stripping furniture. It’s satisfying when the last bit goes down. It changes the entire picture when the last pin goes in. It’s complete and whole and makes you jump up and down.
This was a beautiful couch and I pulled it apart and now it’s a different beautiful because it’s just bones and it could be anything. And when it’s finished it’ll be a different kind of beautiful.
People say “you found it on the side of the road why is it so expensive?” The reality of reuse is that there’s time involved in taking it back to basics instead of buying a new frame. They’re about on par. There’s a lot of labor and thought involved. Mixing and matching bits that I hold on to in order to make whole pieces again. The open kitchen/open workshop is essential to people understanding the price tags on my stuff.
A lot of my fabrics are preloved vintage finds, liquidation stock, stuff that would end in landfill. I’ve spent hours finding it, sourcing it, driving all over the country for it. But at the end of the day it lets me do what I do so I don’t oncharge that. Even if it’s a weekend I’m always finding bits.
It’s scary doing it full time. It’s scary not knowing if people are going to appreciate what I do enough to pay me to do it all the time. For every person who walks in and says “I don’t’ get it. What is it?”, there are three people who say “Oh I’m so glad that you’re here because I have this chair and the leg is broken and It’s a great chair.” I’m meeting people who are fixing things that they’ve been wanting to fix for years. I’m meeting people who are as excited about it as I am. People who appreciate the stories as much as I do. People want their origin stories. It makes things real and it gives you connections. People want to be able to say “I found the piece and I said what if it was red?” They want to think it’s theirs and it’s unique.
There’s a lot of familiarity and a lot of emotion around all of the pieces with very few exceptions, they’ve all got a story and they’re wearing the story. You can see that they’ve been lived on and loved.
And to do it in a way that makes someone else smile, or want to touch it, is really powerful. That’s part of why I like working with old furniture. You see it in the side of the road and its got a form that you have to touch it.
Maaike as told to Amory Starr 2013