By Claudie Benjamin

Are you looking to have your Rococo family heirloom restored or a well-worn mid-century Knoll Saarinen Womb chair reupholstered? It could be a spur-of-the-moment decision or a long-delayed project. Regardless, finding an expert upholsterer is no easy task, as many in the field are near retirement and younger people aren’t eagerly entering the trade, according to Byrna West of Byrna West Upholstery.  A master of her trade, Byrna offers bespoke solutions in what is truly a dying art form.

Born and raised in Virginia, and having earned an MBA, Byrna’s first occupation was in finance and business, working for American Express in Brazil for four years. Back in the US, she raised capital for start-ups, later forming her own start-up in London focused on Latin American art.  Moving from fine arts to decorative arts and then furniture, she found that the upholstery trade gave her the creative outlet and meticulous hands-on work she longed for while also giving her a much-needed “break from the laptop.”  Inspired by a “leisure course,” Byrna undertook three years of formal training following the AMUSF diploma curriculum (Association of Master Upholsterers & Soft Furnishers), studying under notable upholsterers and working with various studios in London.

On moving to Manhattan with her teenage daughter, Byrna found a workspace at 254 West 82nd Street that was ‘near parks and green space.’  Her daughter is now beginning her second year at college. Byrna has expanded into a workshop space in Yonkers but continues to meet with clients at her UWS space – by appointment only.

Upholstery at this level of excellence spans from stripping down a piece to its bare frame – often followed by disassembly and reconstruction – to rebuilding the foundation, upholstering with a new top fabric, and finishing off with decorative details such as stitching, gimp tape, French tacks and/or deep buttoning.  Each step is guided by an artistry that considers woodwork, functionality, comfort, textiles, and design. It is a demanding, often solitary work that’s unforgiving of mistakes. How did Byrna know she would be good at this? She explained that mastering challenges is part of the appeal. “I sailed halfway around the world on a 13-meter sloop in my early ‘20’s with one other person. The tasks were often endless and varied, such as mending sails after a storm, navigating through reefs, and spearing fish for dinner.”

Acknowledging her aptitude for the trade, Byrna is fascinated with the history of upholstery as it runs parallel to cultural, societal, political, and trade trends throughout the world. The expression “sleep tight,” for example, stems from when the hay fibers in mattresses were held in place with tufting. These mattresses were only found in aristocratic homes, whereby the servants would pull the twine tufting tight each night to even out the mattress for a comfortable night of sleep. Thus, ‘sleep tight.’  Or that Victorian nursing chairs were designed quite low to allow for women, who wore corsets at the time, to reach for small children without needing to bend over.

Byrna was first drawn to the upholstery trade through her love of textiles.  Sourcing fabrics is her favorite step in the process. While she advises owners to choose fabrics that honor the era of the piece, ultimately, she is guided by her client’s aesthetic, practical preferences, and suitability. She finds it particularly exciting to work on iconic pieces, naming recent commissions such as a Milo Baughman Case Sofa, Rob Perry Lotus Chairs, Giorgetti armchairs, Hans Wegner armchairs, a French Voltaire chair, and a pair of 1950s Erwin Lambeth tub chairs.

Byrna aims for perfection and is not deterred when a client expresses the wish for a “bespoke look for their aged and unhappy camelback sofa.” The process can be long when considering the fabric selection stage.  She has a backlog through the end of October at the moment, so she suggested if you’ve got any interest, contact her sooner rather than later!  Particularly as she’s headed to France for a short work-cation to complete some pieces for a renovated farmhouse.  Bon voyage!

See Byrna’s work on her INSTAGRAM, byrnawestupholstery

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