It can be easy to take upholstery for granted. After all, you probably have several upholstered pieces in your home — everything from your overstuffed sofa to your favorite armchair to your headboard or even your walls. However, there are many things to consider when selecting upholstery fabric for custom pieces, including style and durability. Much of my work at my Austin interior design firm is centered around comfort and how to plan a room that engages the human form. Proper upholstery selection is one of the most powerful ways to command visual attention and welcome people into a space. In this Interior Design Glossary entry, I review the definition, history, and benefits of upholstery in the home. I also share a little insight into how designers make upholstery selections for our clients.
What is Upholstery?
Upholstery encompasses all the materials that make up the soft finishes in a space, including fabric and padding. The art of upholstering was developed in the Middle Ages and took off in popularity through the following centuries. (If you’ve ever been forced to sit through a dinner party in a stiff wooden chair, you can see why!) Upholstery is applied to any framed furniture piece, such as sofas, chairs, and headboards. You can even envelop a room in fabric, upholstering the ceiling and walls. While you’re at it, why not “upholster” the floors with wall-to-wall carpeting? I want to curl up just thinking about this design layered with so many rich textiles.
A Brief History of Upholstery
The history of upholstery might be one of the coziest topics I’ve covered yet. (I’m currently researching this while relaxing in my favorite upholstered armchair, which I’ll talk more about later.) Although the earliest examples of upholstery sprung up in the form of tapestries adorning castle walls in the Middle Ages for temperature regulation, the art of upholstering furniture didn’t take off until the 17th century when the Upholsterer’s Company in London was granted a business charter. Around this time, the conventions around textiles shifted from practical applications to comfort, thanks in part to the influence of Queen Elizabeth I.
Inside the palace, Queen Elizabeth commissioned cushions for chairs and upholstered settees for people to gather comfortably — creating the earliest form of the modern living room. Upholstered sofas and wingback chairs soon became common in the homes of royals and noble elites. It wasn’t until the rise of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century that comfort became a commodity readily available to the middle classes. Machine-woven fabrics and paddings allowed for quicker and cheaper production, lowering the price of upholstered furniture. Through the years, manufacturers have continued to engineer upholstery advancements, such as foam cores and performance fabrics. Today, homeowners have endless combinations of paddings and fabrics from which to create completely custom upholstered pieces that can be reupholstered and reimagined through the decades.
My Experience With Upholstered Furniture
A pair of 1968 upholstered armchairs still holds a special place in my heart and home. (Yes, quality upholstered pieces can carry through many lifetimes through reupholstery and proper care!) Soon after my parents married, they bought a pair of barrel chairs upholstered in green crushed velvet. I thought they were the best things in the world growing up. I’d climb into them to read, and I deeply missed them when I moved out for college. My mother held on to them through the years, moving them from room to room whenever a small yet entirely comfortable seat was needed. They do their job well, and their classic form never goes out of style.
After studying and growing into my interior design career in New York City for over 15 years, my husband, two children, and I returned to Austin in 2008. We moved into a small ranch home by Texas standards. However, it felt like a massive feat to furnish for a family coming from a 650-square-foot Chelsea apartment. Thankfully, my mother offered us the green crushed-velvet barrel chairs. I was thrilled to have these upholstered pieces back in my life!
Just as I had done as a child, my kids climbed on these chairs for storytime and game nights. The chairs collected their fair share of wear and tear until it was time to take them into the upholsterer’s shop for an overhaul. I would have never parted with them, and I don’t think any homeowner should discard an upholstered piece if it offers warming nostalgia and has good bones. These old-school pieces have well-built frames, hand-tied springs, and even a flexible deck. They were more than worth the investment of new fabric, and I even added a swivel base under their skirts. My favorite chairs from childhood have a new life in my home, and I intend to pass them on to my own children, who love them as much as I do.
Benefits of Quality Upholstery in the Home
Quality upholstered furniture is the best investment you can make toward the comfort and beauty of your home. I can’t get enough of it myself! Here are four of my main reasons to invest in upholstery.
Layers of Comfort
Rich textiles add layers of comfort to a home, creating visual interest and inviting touch. Complete a warm, quiet, and inviting room with upholstered walls and furnishings alongside drapes and accent pillows.
Added Personal Style
When it comes to upholstery, the options are truly endless. Start with a new or antique frame. Then, select your comfort level of cushion. Finally, give life to the piece with a patterned fabric that highlights its structure while conveying your personal style.
It’s hard to imagine not having any upholstered surfaces in a home. Upholstery offers increased livability and is one of the main features that make a house a home.
Like my favorite childhood chairs, well-upholstered pieces offer the opportunity for reupholstery. Rather than buying new, reupholstering can preserve sentimental connections while bringing new life to a piece and space. Some furnishings are classics for a reason, and the value of good lines and construction can endure for decades.
Considerations for Choosing Upholstery Fabric
Beyond selecting a textile color and pattern that complements the lines of the piece and integrates well into the space, many technical considerations go into choosing upholstery fabric. First, designers need to measure how much material is required to cover a furniture piece, taking into account size, style, cushion depth, and fabric pattern, as well as application, wearability, and fabric weight. Although upholstered ceilings and walls won’t receive much wear, sofas and chairs must stand up to all that life brings, whether pet hair, kids, or a spilled glass of wine. Therefore, upholstered furniture pieces require heavy-weight fabrics with a high rub count or wearability score. Delicate fabrics such as silk work for drapes, but heavy fabrics such as damask, velvet, and mohair work better for sofa and chair cushions.
Take a Seat
Custom upholstery allows for so much personalization and comfort. Get creative with your selections, and transform passed-down pieces for the new generation or take a risk with a two-toned sofa. When it comes to upholstery and comfort, you can never have too much.
Sit back and enjoy the upholstery.
Amity Worrel is an award-winning interior designer based in Austin, Texas. She has worked on high-end interior design projects for celebrities and tastemakers in NYC, LA, and the Bahamas. In 2008, Amity decided to bring her passion for diverse design back to her hometown of Austin. Her spaces pull from timeless design concepts ranging from coastal contemporary to cozy cottage to Austin eclectic. Emotional connections, functional flow, and a touch of humor remain central to every interior design scheme. Her work has been published in national and local publications, including The Wall Street Journal, House Beautiful, HGTV Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and Austin Home. In her free time, she loves perusing estate sales and diving into design history. Learn more about Amity.