It’s like a window back to a 1960s furniture catalogue. An exquisite set of designer Finn Juhl chairs hide among refurbished period pieces. Their surprisingly delicate frames snake out in slender curves waiting for the right touch of fabric and Tina Morgan’s upholstering.
“Those are the kinds of pieces that I really love,” she says. Ms. Morgan 42, who lives in Toronto, is working to create a niche market for her work in the increasingly high-end world of upholstery. She got into the furniture line after dropping out of a business program at Acadia University in Nova Scotia in 1990.
Her work has pushed her boldly into an industry where many of the older tradespeople have retired and there is little fresh blood in the industry, other than a few independent classes. Colleges such as Mohawk and St. Lawrence continue to teach upholstery, but formal programs are disappearing. Kwantlen Polytechnic University stopped teaching the trade in Vancouver and Toronto’s George Brown College closed the city’s last college upholstery program 10 years ago.
It should be the right skill at the right time. In a world gone repurposing mad, more and more people are choosing to refurbish old furniture, a trend that Roger Bossert, 60, of Roger’s Upholstery in Vancouver, attributes partly to environmental concerns. Mr. Bossert calls it the oldest recycling program in the world.
But “it’s sort of like a dying art,” he says. “There doesn’t seem to be the kind of money in it that there used to be before. Who wants to go and spend seven or eight years learning how to do something that they’re not going to be able to make enough dough at?”
Tina Morgan Designs sits in the old Moloney Electrical Plant in Toronto’s Junction Triangle, surrounded by half-demolished buildings reminiscent of a more prosperous industrial age. At the studio an ordinary drop-in cushion on a dining room chair would cost about $45. A fully upholstered chair would cost $500-$800 and a sofa would take a week and cost $1,000-$1,200.
Fabric isn’t included in most upholstery quotes, and usually costs $50-$70 per yard for decent designer fabric. Expensive fabrics can cost as much as $400 per yard. The cost of upholstering has increased dramatically over the years, partly because the foam contains oil-based ingredients.
Ms. Morgan says pricing always affects her business, and “fabrics have definitely increased in prices over the years.”
She makes an average of $5,000 before paying for tools and the studio lease. And although business has been going well for a while, some months have been a struggle. This past January and February she made only $1,000 each month – nowhere near enough to pay an employee’s wage.
Sophia Saunders, 27, was eager to learn upholstery this past January. After returning to Canada from a teaching stint in Taiwan, she was ready to put down roots. Although she was initially interested in carpentry, she ended up in upholstery, drawn in part by the artistic creativity and skill.
She contacted Ms. Morgan and the pair decided to look for government programs to help subsidize her apprenticeship. They were surprised to discover that since it wasn’t a Red Seal trade, an apprenticeship didn’t qualify for funding.
“Even flooring is a Red Seal trade, which means that they have set standards they have to abide by and certain kinds of education qualifications in order to practice,” Ms. Morgan says. “It’s shocking, because upholstery is a trade that takes hours and hours and hours to learn. There’s so many ways to regulate it but for whatever reason it’s not done.”
According to 2006 census data from the sample province of Quebec, 55.8 per cent of upholsterers were between the ages of 45 and 64, compared to 42 per cent for all occupations. Service Canada statistics also indicate the average annual growth rate forecast for 2010 – 2014 will shrink by 0.7 per cent as compared to 0.9 in all occupations; 89.2 per cent of upholsters worked full-time and the average yearly income was $26,078.
In the middle of Mimico, Evelyn Bouma’s Creativity Classes may be one of the last places to learn upholstery in Toronto. Ms. Bouma, 87, charges $150 for 25 hours of class time and provides the material students need at wholesale cost. Enrollment has been pretty steady since she began teaching in 1965.
Milton Huie, a partner with Da’Costa Fine Furniture and Upholstery in Toronto, brought skills he learned from his father in Jamaica when he immigrated in 1972. The 58-year-old believes that as other people retire the business will get easier for him, even though he already has more work than he can handle.
“But at some point in time, I will have to retire too!” he jokes.
Ms. Bouma has no intention of retiring. Ten years ago, the Toronto School Board told her she was too old to work. She rented a space at the Mimico Adult Centre and went independent. She says she plans to “keep on going” with her classes. “I have so much fun that it’s not work for me.”
Ms. Morgan is optimistic that younger people will start to take interest. “I think that people are clever enough that they’ll realize there’s a space in the market,” she says.
But Dave Taylor, a partner in Da’Costa’s, disagrees.“Nobody wants to take this up. Everybody wants to go into computers. But computers can’t do this,” he says.
Special to The Globe and Mail