Conservation Project: Upholstered Furniture

Over the past few years, a primary focus of the Furniture and Frame Conservation Lab has been the preparation of period rooms for installation in the Museum’s new wing, set to open in late 2010 and dedicated to the American art collections. For the first time, the dining room and parlor from a house owned by Roswell Gleason, an early nineteenth-century Boston silversmith, will be assembled in these new galleries, showcasing one of the major upholstery displays that will be on view in the new wing. The original contents of the parlor had already been dispersed when the room came to the Museum in 1977, but using a photograph of the parlor from about 1870 for historical reference, a set of mid to late nineteenth-century parlor furniture, consisting of one sofa, two armchairs, and four side chairs made in Boston in the Rococo Revival style, was purchased in 1982.

These pieces retained the original under-upholstery, including the iron springs. However, both the original and later webbing had failed, and without this support, the seat materials had fallen out of the bottom, causing the seat edges to collapse. To provide the proper foundation, new custom wood frames were constructed to fit inside the original seat frames, receive the new webbing, and accommodate the original springs. In addition, treatment required removing non-original materials, tying the springs vertically to reduce pressure on the upholstery above, supporting the upholstery from underneath, and applying new show covers. The finished furniture will blend seamlessly into the reassembled Roswell Gleason parlor and contribute to the overall feel of an authentic nineteenth-century American interior.

See photos of the furniture before, during, and after conservation.

It is often rare to find so much extant material, and this original under-upholstery provided evidence of the exact profile and shape of the upholstery, information vital in the recreation of convincing historic forms for the chairs and sofa. Conventional treatment techniques usually involve the removal of all upholstery materials and replacement with new forms. Metal tacks are nailed into the furniture frames to secure the webbing, under-upholstery, and cover. However, successive re-upholsteries cause significant damage to the tacking margins, leading to the loss of valuable information about previous treatments and the original placement and size of trims and decorative brass nails.

Over the past 20 years, there has been a growing interest in preserving historical materials, a shift which has led to the development of non-interventive methods that employ few, if any, metal fasteners. The chairs and sofa in the Roswell Gleason parlor are just a few of the many works that will benefit from these new non-invasive solutions. Upholstered furniture will be featured throughout the new American wing, and the Museum’s conservators continue to explore the many complex issues relating to the examination, interpretation, stabilization, and treatment of upholstery.