The search for a stylish, sophisticated chair doesn’t have to be difficult. Here’s a bit of reupholstery advice that will keep you on the edge of your seats

The other day, I talked to my upholsterer and was not surprised by what he told me: They’ve been incredibly busy reupholstering not old furniture, but brand-new pieces. The reason this didn’t surprise me was I’ve been doing just that for a number of my design clients.

Sometimes the fastest way to get a project done is to take a piece of furniture that has the right lines, but the wrong upholstery, and swap out the fabric. This is an easy fix that not only saves a lot of time looking for precisely the right furniture, but it can also transform an ordinary new piece into a fantastic one.


Chairs are a great example. If a chair is fully upholstered, it’s probably not worth the cost to reupholster the entire thing. But if it’s not, it’s often worthwhile to buy a more affordable chair and spend your money on a better fabric. Here are some tips.

Tip 1. Consider the quality

Don’t go to the expense of reupholstering if the chair is not solidly built. I like to lift a chair to feel its weight, especially dining chairs. Quality furniture usually feels more substantial.

Tip 2. Don’t be afraid to mix it up

With exposed-frame pieces, you don’t need to have the same fabric on the top and bottom. One chair I found had exactly the right height and wood tone (see large photo). What it needed was interesting fabric to tie into my scheme — an eclectic beach house. I mixed my choices, putting a gold-tone fabric on top and a blue ikat on the seat bottom, and turned it into a one-of-a-kind statement.

Tip 3. Think outside the box

Another client needed chairs for a waiting room. This chair (see photo at left) was perfect except for the seat back, which was a little too busy. I simplified the back and upholstered it with a more textural brown fabric to give it a sophisticated look.

Tip 4. Choose the right fabric


Upholstery fabric needs to be durable, since it will be exposed to a lot of wear and tear. Look for durable tightly woven fabrics with a high abrasion factor of at least 15,000 double rubs.

To prolong the life of your fabric, it’s a good idea to get it treated by the upholsterer if it hasn’t already been treated by the manufacturer. I don’t recommend home treatment. Commercial-grade fabrics these days come in beautiful choices (the fabrics in these two photo examples are commercial grade). You might want to consider this for chairs that kids will use or that you’ll have in indoor-outdoor spaces.

So next time you’re looking for the right stylish chair, remember this: Sometimes it pays to look at the bones and see if you can make it more uniquely yours by restyling it.

Cathy Lee is president and designer of Cathy Lee Style and Cathy’s Marketplace, a furniture and accessories showroom with design services at 1110 University Ave. She recently opened reStyle Hawaii, an affordable, style-conscious consignment warehouse with upholstering and repurposing services at 420 Keawe St. To find out more, go to