The daunting COVID-19 restrictions of social distancing and shelter-at-home have put immense pressure on businesses across the country. Musicians are playing concerts at home, veterinarians are providing TeleVet mobile appointments, and restaurants are offering modified food and cocktail menus for pick-up or delivery. Not all services, however, require high customer interaction--like reupholstering furniture. This ancient craft tends to be tucked away in basements or busy workrooms. So how is this behind-the-scenes industry coming to terms with the crisis? By harnessing technology, like everyone else.
The first ever Upholstery Community Meeting was held on March 25, 2020. Hosted by the National Upholstery Association (NUA), around 40 upholsterers from across the country joined a Zoom video call to discuss how they’re adjusting to this new reality. “I just helped a customer measure her furniture over FaceTime. It worked out well!” said Nancy Sargent, owner of Cobani Bleu in Nashville, TN.
In an industry with a reputation for solitude, some shops are ready to double down on an inherent advantage during this time of unprecedented social distancing. “Let customers know pickup and delivery can be safe. We are open for business!” said Heather Taylor, owner of Custom Textiles in Burlington, CT. . Another owner who recently furloughed four employees was relieved that when it was time to return to work, the workroom was large enough for people to keep a safe distance.
In a somber moment, one upholsterer expressed nervousness about the uncertainty of upcoming projects, especially ones with large hospitality clients who have recently laid off staff. Another area of concern was access to materials. “Without supplies we will all be shut down,” said Rhonda Shanahan, owner of The Whimsical Chair in Castle Rock, CO.
The conversation segued into a celebration of depression-era furniture, as the group drew pride and inspiration from previous generations of upholsterers who famously made due in times of material shortages. Sprits were lifted again when attendees contemplated the potential for upholstery to pick up should the shift in the economy linger. The upholsterer who was nervous about losing larger clients mentioned a recent uptick from residential customers, who have been spending more time than usual at home. H. Taylor, noting a recent increase in emails from people looking to start new projects, said she felt hopeful.
Should there be a lull in business, the upholsterers are already planning ahead: “What did my business need before this happened? What can I now carve out time for?” asked Cynthia Bleskachek, a Founding Member of the NUA and owner of The Funky Little Chair in Minneapolis, MN. Working on the business side of the business--tending to a website, editing product photography, and learning new video software—was a common strategy. “It’s time to be extra inventive,” said Claire Wright, owner of Cosecha Textiles in Friday Harbor, WA.
Imagining a future beyond the weight and worry imposed by the global pandemic resonated deeply. In response to a question about the difficulty of finding sustainable materials, asked by Wright, as she contemplates shifting her business to focus more on sustainable materials, Carla Pyle, a Founding Member of the NUA, and owner of Natural Upholstery in Livingston, MT, unleashed group-wide optimism with her resources, commitment to exploring emerging materials (like mycelium), and her excitement for the circular economy.
Attendees came looking for support as well as tactics to help them navigate this time of uncertainty. “We’re here for the mental health,” moderator Audrey Lonsway, Vice President of the NUA, said only half-jokingly. According to the NUA’s Instagram post, Upholstery Community Meetings will be held for as long as they are needed.
“I think in general right now, looking after the health of your relationships (clients, vendors, students, strategic partners),” Bleskachek wrote in the Zoom chat box, “is incredibly important <3.” A sentiment that was echoed by many.
Upholstery Community Meetings are scheduled for Wednesdays at 1pm EST. To register visit the our COVID-19 page here.