Written by Monica Rhodes, NUA Volunteer
Cynthia Bleskachek doesn’t just think outside the box. She takes the box apart and does origami with it.
Let’s start there. With the box. I’m referring here not to the art of upholstery which, as Cynthia points out, always involves out-of-the box thinking. Because each piece is different, upholsterers are naturally nimble problem solvers when it comes to repairing and transforming furniture. The box in which we find ourselves trapped, as Cynthia sees it, is our industry structure (or “shared infrastructure”) which has become disjointed and dysfunctional, leaving gaping pot holes on the path to success and security for current and future generations of would-be upholsterers. Cynthia is adamant that ours is not a dying trade - so many people are passionate about it, ready and eager to make a living in this industry - but classroom training is ridiculously hard to come by and apprenticeships are largely a thing of the past. Cynthia is on the forefront of a drive to change that.
In her Instagram Stories at the end of Upholstery Awareness Month (October), Cynthia paid tribute to her mom. When Cynthia was a child, her mother established a home workroom, parlaying sewing skills into a cushion making enterprise that evolved into a full-fledged upholstery business. She did this in isolation, without the benefit of the internet to link her to training and business resources. In college, Cynthia studied Vocal Performance with the intention to become a music teacher, but by the time she was in her senior year, she knew that was not the path for her. After graduating, she went back to school to study graphic design and started working with her mom “to bridge the gap”. Cynthia ended up crossing that bridge to a 20-year career in upholstery that has been as notable for her accomplishments in instruction and advocacy as it has been for her much-admired work as a master of the trade.
Everyone I’ve interviewed so far has grown up watching one or more close relatives sew and/or upholster. One of my favorite questions to ask during interviews is, “Did that person/those people make something that is particularly memorable?” When I ask Cynthia this question, she tilts her head. “What I remember (about my mom) is, not just upholstery, but her journey – of figuring out how to set up a business at home before the internet, and my respect for her self-teaching and determination.” Cynthia also remembers the times when her mom had to endure negative interactions with certain clients, or found herself in over her head on a project with no access to professional support. Eventually, Cynthia’s mother found her community in the Professional Upholsterers’ Association of Minnesota (PUAM); it was a revelation that brought pure joy. No doubt, this played into one of Cynthia’s greatest achievements outside of the workshop or classroom, the co-founding of the National Upholstery Association (NUA) in 2019. The NUA started as think tank involving a group of talented and dynamic upholsterers dedicated to fostering a supportive community of tradespeople and providing access to critical educational, business, technical and material resources. In many ways, Cynthia notes, “we (upholsterers) are a scattered and invisible population.” Now that the NUA is a reality, no member need be an island, gutting it out alone.
In addition to developing upholstery instruction, Cynthia provides technical consultation and workroom support to master upholsterer Grant Trick in Irondale, AL and Grahn’s Upholstery in Minneapolis, MN. When I ask Cynthia which she prefers, doing upholstery work herself or teaching others, I know the answer before I even finish the sentence. Teaching is her ultimate passion and it is from this angle that Cynthia Bleskachek tears the upholstery establishment box down and deftly folds it into a paper airplane ready to soar.
In 2016, Cynthia transformed her Facebook page, The Funky Little Chair, into a physical business and began teaching in-person classes there. In addition, she has made myriad instructional videos, on platforms including Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, that are regularly accessed by budding and established upholsterers alike. That’s important but, Cynthia asserts, thousands of hours of hands-on learning, either in a classroom or as an apprentice (ideally both) is at once foundational to true mastery and practically impossible to achieve. She points out that upholsterers should not have to fly across the country to receive hands-on instruction to enhance their skills, but that is exactly what is happening in the face of a dearth of viable local opportunities.
In recent years, Cynthia has spent a good deal of time thinking and working to solve this problem. The NUA is part of the solution; another is Cynthia’s teaching model which is evolving quickly in tandem with her thoughts regarding a new industry structure for today’s upholsterers “who are often coming in with a tech savvy approach and a head for modern business. “Look at Grant (Trick),” she says, “and RePinned, and Clarke's Upholstery and Knox Upholstery, and Blue Roof Cabin, and A Chick and a Chair!” Cynthia is constantly considering ways to ensure that this new generation will “have options for hiring and scaling, if they want it.”
This work requires focused attention and an immense amount of time. When classroom teaching became impossible due to Covid-19, Cynthia suddenly found herself with opportunity to dive deep into creating the much-anticipated Funky Little Chair Upholstery Training Systems. The first six on-line courses debuted during Upholstery Awareness Month in October. These six are basic level; intermediate and advanced courses are on deck for 2021. The word “systems” is key. The project-based modules focus on skill scaffolding and provide multiple layers of instruction including on-line coursework supported by detailed written and pictorial materials. Later this month, virtual support in the form of one-to-one consultation with an experienced professional upholsterer will become available for an additional fee. Once purchased, the courses and materials will be yours to keep.
Looking forward to evaluating and further developing the FLC Training Systems, Cynthia stresses the importance of a 360 degree outside-the-box view. It is crucial, she says, to consider all of the things outside of the physical and/or virtual classroom that impact an upholsterer’s development and trajectory. Among these, access to other upholsterers - community - is vital. Cynthia has a vision of the Training Systems funneling into local opportunities, across the country, for upholsterers to connect and work more effectively together. This requires a rigorous examination of trade culture in light of complicated geographical, logistical and economic factors and the insight, charisma and stamina to build a nationwide network of opportunity based on mutual benefits. If anyone can commandeer that high-flying paper airplane that - in its former shape - only served to box us in, no doubt it is Cynthia Bleskachek.
You can find Cynthia on Facebook, Instagram and FLC Training Systems on www.thefunkylittlechair.com.