Hands-On With Schumacher Fabrics

Why everything we thought we knew about reupholstering was wrong

What happens when you combine hand-me-down furniture and traditional fabrics with one of NYC’s best-loved designers? The answer is two reinvented chairs that stay true to their roots. The pleasantly surprising path to these old-meets-new results started with a practical and common enough scenario: furniture that badly needed reupholstering. Like many who undertake their own home decor projects, I was short on time but long on inspiration. I needed help.

Schumacher, makers of fabrics, wall-coverings and trim (who recently celebrated their 129th anniversary) agreed to provide materials and reached out to Billy Cotton. The interior and furniture designer, recently named to Architectural Digest’s Design 100, lent his expertise toward refreshing my idiosyncratic mix of seating: a wingback and footstool, hand-carved by an ancestor, and a barrel chair. How Cotton—known for projects that balance thoughtfulness and storytelling with a fresh, pared-back approach—would combine my chairs with the storied brand’s fabrics was an intriguing prospect. The pieces, from wildly different eras and styles, needed to work with an eclectic mix of other furniture that ranges from mid-century modern to Ikea. So first I familiarized myself with Schumacher.

Visiting the NYC headquarters feels similar to stepping inside an art studio, with inspiration everywhere—from Giove, a symmetrical print of curving snakes, to seductive woven textures. Creative Director Dara Caponigro describes the process of making the collections as falling “in love with something and you have to do it,” which CEO Timur Yumusuklar backs up as “coming from the heart.” This passion for design has its origins in the family-owned company’s rich history of collaborations with the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright and Paul Poiret. Today, the brand introduces monthly collections to keep up with the latest design currents, like a 2017 collection with Vogue Living or the recent Caroline Z Hurley patterns in the Indie Artisan series. Further, they innovate with developments such as the first silk velvet to resist stains which came out last year.

The signs of Schumacher’s push into the 21st century are everywhere. You don’t see many other luxury design establishments on Snapchat, for example. Nor is it likely you’d hear others cite a designer as a “wild card” and emphasize that they want to support that. It seemed obvious to follow this trailblazing lead and go with a contemporary fabric. I imagined a bold black-and-white ikat (inspired by a traditional obi sash) contrasting nicely with the scrollwork of the wingback. But I was wrong.

When I met Cotton at the Schumacher showroom he seemed to fly from rack to rack of gorgeous fabrics. It was a breathless tour through the thousands of fabrics in the Schumacher library, a dizzying array of styles and influences—and completely overwhelming. But Cotton efficiently marked down selections and pulled samples. “Older fabric companies like Schumacher have a depth in their catalogue that allow you to know that you are going to find what you are looking for,” he explains, “Whether it be new or from their archives.”

For period pieces like this, “Once you have made the decision that a piece of furniture is going to stay with you, enough that you’re going to invest in reupholstering it,” Cotton says, “It’s best to lean into the chair, not the latest design trend.“ And Schumacher’s extensive collection provided no shortage of options.

The author’s completed chairs, courtesy of Schumacher

Cotton chose a silk-linen called Colette, unusual for its mix of sheen, gingham check and damask, for the barrel chair. His clever finishing touch: bleaching the wood for a look that reads more Paris flea market than thrift-store find. (Pro tip: many ’70s-era pieces can be revived by stripping away the cheap varnish that turns yellow and speckled with age to reveal the solid wood underneath.) When it came to the hand-carved armchair and footstool, he found a cozy green wool that is soft to the touch but reinforced with synthetics for durability. Trimmed with Schumacher’s Erin Gimp in a warm golden tone, the handsome result makes the chair feel special without overwhelming it in pattern.

Now, with the furniture grabbing regular compliments, they’re testaments to letting the core beauty of a piece shine through—while taking risks at the same time. It’s a particular sensibility that both honors the original and reinvigorates it, a smart choice by Cotton that suits the chairs well and serves as an apt metaphor for Schumacher itself.

Images courtesy of Schumacher