What inspired you & Toby to establish Cheltenham Upholstery/ Planted? Did you feel there was a gap in the market of the interior design industry?
Previously, Toby was running an upholstery workshop, and I was working for an interior design company. We hit a time in our life when we'd just given birth to our son, and were in intensive care for a month. We both said to each other, enough of this (jobs,) what are we doing this for, things are going to change. Then we just quit our jobs and decided to start Cheltenham Upholstery based on the skills that we already had, and a couple of clients we knew we could keep.
Could you tell me about your art direction history and how it translates into the business now?
I can imagine it’s extremely helpful in your current role as an interior designer... There are actually not that many crossovers. The art directing I used to do in London was for a food and drink tasting company. However, it did give me experience in managing teams of people and working out how to do things/ solve problems. It was also useful for physical tasks, I was always up ladders and building things. That is very handy in interior design because it gives you much better spacial awareness. You know how furniture can work in different houses. That's probably the only real way that it crosses over. Also being generally creative, meeting lots of artists, and being inspired by different architecture all helps.
I understand that Planted is a sustainable branch of Cheltenham Upholstery. Could you explain the difference/ what Planted specialises in for those who don't know?
We first started with Cheltenham Upholstery- a re-upholstering service. We had a lot of experience in upholstering antique things and making new furniture too. We found it extremely frustrating that UK fire regulations for upholstering were (and are still) completely out of date. There are also lots of unnecessary hoops to jump through in order to comply. We already made our furniture in quite a traditional way; not to the extent of using horsehair, but the way that our frames are made, where the timber comes from, how they're jointed, and how it all works. The layers that we put in are very different from factory-made furniture from high-street shops. It just got to a point where we thought, well, we've already gone to the effort to do all this, why don't we push this further and go eco. Let’s remove all polyurethane foams and chemicals from the new furniture people are having made by us. It doesn't make any sense, and we should all want to have healthier homes. So then, we literally stripped down the process and replaced all the materials based on a traditional upholstery method, to build eco furniture.
I guess this would've been the process before IKEA was about, doing it on a mass production..
100%. We work with professional frame makers, they only make frames, they make them all out of FSC beech and they know what they're doing. We come up with a design, then we discuss it with them and make sure it's going to work. We have specific ideas about what we want each style to do. For example, the Sid sofa is low and deep and cosy, but the Betty style, although still deep is a more neat looking sofa. All these things are really important in a sofa because you want the client to choose something that is going to last for generations and generations. They might have to have it recovered and re-upholstered in time, but the inners are all going to be sound and stay for years and years to come. It's an investment, but it's actually not that much of an investment, if you think that in someone's life they might get through six IKEA sofas. You may as well buy one sofa that's going to last you, and you can pass it on to your children and they can have it recovered. It comes with some more sentimental interest as well, because interiors are emotional too.
Absolutely. This personal touch makes it more unique because no two sofas will be the same…
Yeah for sure. We make furniture for specific spaces as well, that's the other problem that people have. We often work with interior designers and it gives them an opportunity to design and fit a piece of furniture into their clients’ homes. Fitting high-street sizing into homes isn’t always easy! So every item ordered with us is completely bespoke-made and customisable to fit into a specific space.
Did you start upholstering before designing your own collections, or did this organically go hand in hand?
Toby had been upholstering for seven years and I'd been working in interior design for a few years before we decided to start our own actual collection. We started the collection because our interior designers were asking us for it, saying "I've got this house, I've chosen this fabric, we're having two Victorian chairs recovered, but they really want a sofa as well. Can you make a sofa where we can choose the fabric that goes with it, and you can design it to fit in with the interiors.” So we decided to come up with a base collection of designs that would fit into different houses. All of our styles do different things for different people. It's quite exciting for clients because if you give them the starting point of a design, they really like being involved in how it actually turns out. Then, they've got a piece of furniture in their house that they feel really chuffed about because they've been a part of the design process too.
What are the most common types of furniture you receive for upholstering and do you have a favourite piece to re-invent?
Recently we've had loads of mid-century chairs which I absolutely love. We sometimes get them in piles of bits and we have to put them back together and restore them and bring them back to life. I love doing furniture like that. It's a total transformation. That's definitely what Toby loves as well because he initially trained as a cabinet maker before he became an upholsterer, so he likes seeing the insides of everything, how it works, how it's put together and bringing it back to life, to live on!
I can see your services are available with a modern or eco twist. What trends, designers, aesthetics, and cultures inspire you?
We all like different things I suppose, Toby and I really like architecture. There are some chairs that are designed by architect firms from the 1920s/30s. I really like working on chairs like that. You can see that someone clever has designed it and it really has stood the test of time, it's really exciting to still see it present in trends, even though it's a really old piece of furniture. That's the dream isn’t it, designing something that becomes timeless, but still stands out.
What’s been the most difficult piece to upholster so far? feel free to be as detailed as you like!
There's a little story that goes with this. When we first started 5 years ago, we had a tiny little workshop. It was me, Toby and Julie (Toby's mum,) the seamstress, working together. One of Toby's first jobs from one of our interior designers was a Victorian chaise lounge which was an absolute mess when we received it. We had to rebuild it with horsehair and things like that. On top of that, the actual fabric that was chosen was custom-produced handmade silk. It cost the client about £450 a metre to have done, with a massive pattern repeat. Pattern repeats are the bane of our life, but Toby's really really good at them. Everything has to work and has to be centred in the right place, it has to match the back and the front, and anyway, Toby was literally shaking when he was upholstering this chaise lounge in fabric because if he made one wrong cut or one wrong staple, it would've taken months and months to have more made and it would've cost us a fortune. When it was finished and looked beautiful, we had a little clink of glasses about that one.
Do the fabrics you source have a sustainable footprint too? Where do they come from?
Back to the fire regulations being stupidly outdated, it was hard enough to find face fabrics that we could use on our eco collection that were natural (so they didn’t have to have a chemical FR treatment sprayed to the back), sustainably sourced from different places and our main aim was to be chemical and plastic-free. (Although we do use plastic zips, but these are made from ocean plastic, recycled and recyclable) Unfortunately, the upholstery industry is way behind the fashion industry (which also needs to buck up its ideas!) So when I was searching for my face fabrics, the best sustainable one that I could find is recycled cotton fabric. It's actually made from off-cuts from the fashion industry. It's got a bit of a background story which is nice. I recently met with a fabric rep, and she showed me their collection of recycled polyester fabrics, made in a low carbon factory (this is great I thought!), but unfortunately because of the FR regulations, they still have to have a chemical FR treatment on the back, which defeats the object somewhat. So we are still a few steps away from having a wider choice of sustainable upholstery fabrics. Even though the fabric houses are working hard to use recycled materials, they still have the legislative hoops to jump through, before it can be a wider used mainstream fabric choice.
Are there steps you take to ensure furniture is as physically long-lasting as its aesthetic and design?
Our furniture is based on really traditional craftsmanship. It is built to last, so every item that goes inside it is a hardwearing natural material (all recyclable) so that it will live on, longer than the person buying it. The fabrics are obviously going to wear out after 20 years or something, people can re-invent a design by choosing different fabrics. We reupholster sofas that are 50-80 years old, and we make ours in the same way.
Apart from sustainability, what do you wish you could change about the interior design world?
To make everything much longer-lasting. Education on what you can do with re-upholstering, so to source second-hand frames for things and knowing that you can work with someone local to bring furniture back to life. Rather than buying new all the time, it's just the consumer programme where you buy something new for your house rather than taking a bit of time to source something, have design input and rebuild. Often the second-hand items become the favourite, because you have invested in sourcing them and been part of re designing them, and so they have a stronger emotional connection in your home, and you love them more!
Building off of this, what do you dislike the most about the interior design industry? this could be anything from fickle trends to targeting an audience etc…
Greenwashing. It's so annoying. It's really irritating how the big companies pretend to be doing this and that, and actually, when you look into it, they're not at all. Then there are companies like us, working really hard to try and make sure that we adhere to all of what it is we're trying to achieve. We don't have these big budgets behind us, we don't have the marketing tools behind us. I wish people would dig a bit further.
If the customer wanted to adhere to current trends, you could probably still do this through upholstery too, right?
Of course, you can if you spend a bit of time researching styles of furniture. We often get a style of chairs called Halabalas through the workshop, and they're really cool bentwood armchairs that are from the 1920s. They're having a real resurge at the moment on style, and you can buy yourself a pair of frames, then you can have them recovered with whatever fabric you like. You can buy second-hand frames for such a little amount of money (they're so hard to resell, people are just getting rid of them, and they need new homes!) If you can find something that fits in your house and have it reupholstered, you're going to have a way more beautiful piece of furniture.
What advice would you give people for quitting fast furniture (ever-changing IKEA trends for instance)
I would definitely say find a local upholsterer. Anything can be made, sometimes people are even pleasantly surprised by the cost of it. So you know, if you come to us to buy a sofa, it is going to cost a bit more than somewhere like DFS, but it's not outrageous. Sofas and beds are the biggest things you buy in your house. They're the biggest pieces of furniture that are the most expensive. If you're going to spend £1k on a mattress, then why wouldn't you spend that on the framework?
Finally to round off, are there any exciting plans/ is there any news you’d like to share from your personal life or from the business?
We turned 5 on April 6th 2022. That is quite exciting in itself, when you start with a little idea and it actually transforms into a proper company. We've got big plans for Planted this year but I can't really share any information!!