In our the second of our live Q&As, upholsterer and interior designer Micaela Sharp and furniture restorer Will Kirk joined Roddy Clarke to talk about the joy of bringing new life to interior pieces, and how, through preserving the past, we can look forward to a brighter future for our homes. Focusing on restoration and reupholstery, our experts looked at the vital role it plays as we try to build a more circular economy. Scroll down to read the highlights and find out more...
Will spent hours watching his carpenter grandfather tinker in his workshop, where his passion and interest in furniture was born. After studying at university, honing his skills and gaining a deeper knowledge of furniture restoration and conservation, Will set up his own workshop in 2012 and has been working on commissions for much-loved family heirlooms and larger corporate contracts ever since. Best known for his appearances on BBC One’s The Repair Shop since 2017, Will is also the resident furniture expert on BBC’s Morning Live.
Upholsterer, upcycler, and interior designer hailing from South London, Micaela Sharp creates colourful, vibrant spaces routed in tradition and craftsmanship. Growing up Micaela was taught carpentry and sewing by her family, so when it came to picking a career, upholstery was the perfect fit. Her sought-after talents and expertise have lent themselves to appearing on screen, with spots on BBC One’s Flipping Profit and Alan Titchmarsh’s Love Your Weekend, and this year Micaela also made it to the semi-finals of BBC Two’s Interior Design Masters.
We need to get younger people back into restoration and reupholstery. The industry is ageing and it’s much harder to find someone if you need to get something restored. - Roddy Clarke
How did you get into a career in furniture restoration and upholstery?
Micaela: I kind of stumbled into upholstery. I wanted a hobby where I could make something. My granddad was a carpenter and my nan taught me to sew so I’d always been really good at carpentry, but because I was a girl, I was never really encouraged to pursue it further. So, I went off to university, worked in travel, and only got into it about five years ago, but when I found it, I loved it. Because of my longer journey to upholstery, I’m really passionate about getting young people to think about earlier it as a career option.
Will: I think lots of my friends thought, “Restoration – is that a thing? Can you make a living out of it?”. When you say, ‘antique furniture restorer’, you kind of picture a wizard with a long grey beard turning up to fix your furniture, so me starting my own restoration business at the age of 21 really confused people! I felt like I really had to prove myself as these pieces mean so much to people, but it shows when you have passion for something, you can make it work. I wouldn’t want people to be put off about starting their own business or doing something creative, because you can make a living out of it.
Sustainability is at the heart of reupholstery. It's about keeping hold of pieces of furniture and making them modern. – Micaela Sharp
Do you think the restoration industry is changing?
Will: I think with lockdown and people losing their jobs, we’ve seen lots more people leaving their jobs in the City to make money doing something more creative. People don’t want to buy throw-away things, they like hand-crafted things. There’s definitely a rise in people wanting to buy re-used or choosing brand new things that reuse old pieces.
There’s a certain amount of integrity that goes into the restoration of each piece; how have you learnt the difference between good and bad restoration?
Will: Definitely through trial and error! There’s only so much you can learn in a book; you have to spend years honing your craft. I’ve had things come in where people have given it a go themselves and stripped back too much, removing the charm of the original piece which can’t be replaced. So do your research when looking for a restorer, find out what they’ve worked on in the past and take before and after pictures as well.
How can we embrace upholstery in the home? Are there any good upholstery courses?
Micaela You can absolutely try it at home, and you can get away with basic hand-held tools for simple projects. Start working on relatively simple bits so you don’t put yourself off - for example, things like dining chairs and footstools with simple shapes - to build up your confidence before tackling armchairs or sofas. There are so many YouTube videos and shows on TV to help you nowadays. I say give it a go, as it’s so lovely to have something in your house that you made yourself, and it also gives you an understanding of how things are made, and you’ll start to appreciate how many hours of labour it took to create a piece of furniture. Most local colleges do evening courses as well, so you can do it in your own time.
Everything has got a past and a story to tell. Lots of these pieces will outlive us. - Will Kirk
What’s the most memorable project you’ve worked on?
Will: The Repair Shop is a great example of emotion combined with great pieces of furniture. You hear all the history and what these pieces have been through. Everything has got a past and a story to tell. You can see why some people want to spend X amount of money to get something restored as it means so much to them. Having a physical thing to hold can take you back to an important memory in your life. The coolest thing I ever worked on is when I restored the Duke of Wellington’s writing desk in Horse Guard’s Parade. It’s an honour to be part of history and to help someone on that journey. When you’re stripping back a chair and see a maker’s mark, it’s nice to see the handcrafted element. And the thought that, perhaps in 50 years’ time, someone will strip the fabric off and see your mark. I love that.
Micaela: One thing I always get the most comments about is the £1 sofa on Interior Design Masters I bought off eBay. If found this lovely leather sofa and the guys who were trying to sell it had brought the price down many times. This was their last-ditch attempt to sell it, and if nobody wanted it for a pound, they were going to take it to the tip. How great is it that I stopped that piece from going to landfill? All it needed was some new tops on the seats because there were a few small holes in it.
When you throw something away, it doesn’t go away, it’s got to go somewhere. - Micaela Sharp
What can and can’t be restored?
Will: Restoration of some form is always an option. You look at some things and think ‘stick it in the trash’ but there’s always someone out there who can fix it, it’s just about finding the right person to do a proper job.
What’s the most eco-friendly way to restore something?
Micaela: The oldest materials are the best. If you want to restore a piece of furniture using the least amount of toxins, use horsehair and cotton. It can cost more to go down a traditional route, but those materials do last. Usually, the cheaper the material is, the quicker it was made and the more chemicals it will have in it.
Will: Beeswax. It’s natural, durable, gives a great shine, and it’s been used for hundreds of years. You only really need to wax your furniture every 6 months to a year and it’s good to go.
What do furniture restorers think about upcycling?
Will: If it’s reversible, why not change it up? Paint it or alter it if it saves it going to landfill. Our homes are also smaller, so we don’t have space for massive traditional pieces of furniture anymore, so we have to adapt. However, if you’ve got a nice bit of Chippendale furniture, don’t paint it!
Micaela: Even with upholstery, there’s an element of upcycling versus restoration. Some people want to paint the frame a different colour and add a bold and vibrant fabric; others want to be more sympathetic to what it originally was. But if you’re going to keep it and cherish it, then change it – as long as it’s not a rare piece.
Do you have any upholstery tips?
Micaela: Take your time in stripping something back. Take lots of pictures so you can remember what goes where. Keep the template of the old fabric, then label it up and use it to cut your new fabric. With upholstery, pull everything as tight as you can. Those extra few millimetres of tension make it look more professional.
It’s not necessarily about increasing the value of a piece; it’s about saving it from landfill. - Roddy Clarke
In our next talk on Wednesday 21st April at 5pm BST on Instagram @amaraliving, Roddy meets two amazing charities, @emmausuk and @restoration_stn, to discuss the vital work they do with local communities to restore and repurpose furniture, helping to divert it from rising landfill levels across the country.