Furniture has been comfortable for thousands of years. Among the artisans who carried us out from the Dark Ages, among the blacksmiths, the tailors, and the cobblers, there were the upholsterers. The Believer sat down with a former practioner of the trade to learn more. Of particular interest was the upholstery business as it stood in the Midwest in the Eighties. Though upholstery as a trade was on the wane, several active practitioners could still be found, driving their multicolored vans around suburban Detroit, connecting deeply with the textures of the time. Jack White’s experience with upholstery—from his apprenticeship with Brian Muldoon to his enthusiastic and ultimately abortive entrance into the field as an autonomous player—offers a fascinating and instructive glimpse into a young person’s simultaneous encounters with the worlds of business, art, and furniture.
—Tobias de la Manzana
THE BELIEVER: The best thing we can do is talk about upholstery.
JACK WHITE: I was an upholsterer. I worked at a bunch of upholstery shops the whole time I was a teenager. I ended up having my own upholstery shop, called “Third Man Upholstery.”
BLVR: How did you learn that trade? You apprenticed?
JW: Yeah, I apprenticed for this guy named Brian Muldoon in Detroit for three years or so. Then I went out to the suburbs, and I worked in a big shop called “Beaupre Studios.” Then I worked in a couple of other little places, for a few days at a time. I finally got a little studio and opened up my own place. I was working on sculptures, too, in the same space. I wasn’t really business-minded, though. I didn’t really have a love for money, which kind of hurts the drive to keep working. I would get a check for something and I would just say “Oh,” you know, “Big deal, I’m just going to use this to pay bills or something.” I never really loved the money part. I guess it started to hurt my business attitude.
BLVR: What kind of materials did you work with? Metal, wood?
JW: I wanted to work on more mid-century modern things like Noel and Herman Miller furniture when I first started apprenticing, but it’s the most difficult upholstery you can do—I wasn’t experienced enough to get into that yet. Also, the person I apprenticed for in Detroit had the market locked down and I didn’t want to compete with him, so I was mostly doing antique furniture, you know, people’s settees and chaise lounges and stuff like that. The clientele is mostly older people who could actually afford it, because it’s pretty expensive.
BLVR: It’s incredibly expensive, isn’t it?
JW: Yeah. I initially thought I could hook up my friends with cool furniture, stuff they got at Salvation Army, but I couldn’t afford it.
BLVR: Why is it so expensive?
JW: Say you want to re-upholster a couch. The couch is like twelve yards of fabric, and if you’ve got cheap fabric for $10 a yard (which would be really cheap), that’s $120 already. Then it takes 35-40 hours of work to upholster a couch, so even if you work for $10 an hour, it would end up being like $560 to do a couch, not counting the padding, the cushion, all that stuff. So you couldn’t just cut a deal; you can’t upholster someone’s couch for less than $1000.
BLVR: So the piece has to be worth a lot to begin with.
JW: Yeah, exactly. Someone who bought a couch at Salvation Army for 50 bucks isn’t going to spend $1000 to re-upholster it, unless they’re rich. Then it’s probably okay.
BLVR: Is it an investment? If you have a nice piece, like an actual Herman Miller original or something from that era and you re-upholster it, is it of the same value, or does it go down in value?
JW: No, if you have an original piece and you re-upholster it, it maintains the same value; it’s worth more than a reproduction or a reissue of the same chair from nowadays.
It used to be that you got your parents’ furniture when you were married or whatever and you had their mattress re-upholstered and it would last for thirty, forty years. You spent a lot of money on it initially, but you never got rid of it. Now, the whole method of how people get furniture is just disposable. You go to Art Van or whatever and buy a $400 couch and throw it out a couple of years later. That whole method just killed the upholstery trade, and it became a rich person’s thing.
BLVR: Is it not as much of a trade as it used to be?
JW: It’s very much a dying trade. If you’re an electrician or a plumber, you can get work on every house on the street. With upholstery, though, especially in Detroit, you have to get all your business from the suburbs. It becomes a specialty thing, because nobody really needs to get it done, like they used to. Back in the day, you needed to get it re-upholstered, but now it’s like, “Why would I bother? I’ll just buy something real cheap.”
BLVR: What do you think about Ikea?
JW: Oh, it’s really cool, man. It’s bringing more affordable style to people. It’s pretty sweet. So many places ignored that for the last 40 years or so. Then all of a sudden places like Target started making things. What else can you do when you don’t have any money? At least you can get something cool if you don’t have that much.
BLVR: Did you have trouble starting the business by yourself?
JW: Not really. I was in this warehouse with a bunch of artists in their studios, and as soon as I started, they were giving me work, and word of mouth spread around. I was never out of work. I started doing lots of different things; I did a piece for a psychiatrist—a psychiatrist’s couch with a matching chair.
BLVR: That makes sense, the matching.
JW: Things just sort of spring-boarded. It’s like that old saying: If you’re doing something that people want, they’ll find you. It’s pretty funny that way, because that’s exactly how it worked out. I didn’t really advertise or anything.
BLVR: Would people truck in their couches to you, or would you have to go out and pick them up?
JW: I would go pick furniture up and take it back to the studio. My whole shop was only three colors: yellow, white and black. I had this yellow van, and I dressed in yellow and black when I picked up the furniture, and all my tools were yellow, white and black. It was pretty cool. I got so much into the cartooniness of the business, almost to the point of it being a joke to the people who would see me, and they wouldn’t really trust me to do a good job.
BLVR: They thought you were kidding about the whole thing.
JW: Yeah. I starting trying to make an art form out of giving someone a bill for my services, like writing it with crayon on a piece of paper, or having a yellow piece of paper with black marker saying “You owe me $300.” People would be like “What the hell is this?” and I’d be like “I don’t know, I just want you to sign this and give it back to me and pay me, and that way I can have it as a… um…” People just didn’t dig it. It was two different worlds colliding. When I’d re-upholster furniture I’d take off the old fabric and I started to write poems and things inside the furniture, so if it was ever re-upholstered again one day they’d get little messages from the last person who upholstered it. I thought it’d be cool if we all wrote each other messages.
BLVR: It’s like mail art.
JW: The guy who I apprenticed for, Brian Muldoon, was heavy into mail art. He was one of the big guys in the Seventies doing that.
BLVR: How old were you when you were working in furniture upholstery?
JW: I started apprenticing when I was fifteen, and I had my own shop when I was twenty-one.
BLVR: It must have really looked strange. Someone so young, and with the three colors…
JW: I think so. My business cards were yellow, black and white. Each one had an upholstery tack on it with red paint that looked like blood. My slogan was right below it: “Your Furniture’s Not Dead.”
BLVR: [Laughing] Oh no.
JW: Most people didn’t think it was funny. The guy I used to apprentice for, he saw the card and was like, “Do you want anybody’s business?” [Laughs]
BLVR: What was your van like?
JW: I got this yellow Ford van at a used car place that was like $1200 bucks, I had someone loan me the money. That van was the best thing: I already had the yellow and the black hand tools and power tools, so once I had that, I was set. I built a fabric table that I’d seen at an upholstery shop I worked at. It had Styrofoam underneath the cloth of the table and you could pin the fabric down right to the table so you could measure things perfectly. I built one of those with my older brother. It was yellow and black, just huge and really, really nice. I have it in my basement now. When I closed the shop down, all of that stuff ended up in my basement.
BLVR: Do you ever do upholstery now, for fun?
JW: No, it’s not fun. [Laughs] It’s not fun at all. It’s hard work. I’ve talked to a lot of other upholsterers, and it’s considered one of the most difficult trades. I was having a lot of trouble, and I would talk to these guys when I went to pick up supplies. I asked how long they thought it would take me before I could whip out a chair really fast and start making better money and not have it be a huge problem every time I got a new piece. They told me it was probably going take me between eight and ten years before I’d be really comfortable. I was like “Ah, man, I just can’t do it.”
BLVR: Because each piece of furniture posed a completely different set of problems.
JW: Yeah. I had apprenticed for a few years, but a lot of shops won’t teach you how to do stuff because they can’t waste time and show you how to sew a cushion or how to tie springs up properly—they just have you doing more menial things to ease you into it. By the time I started my own shop, when I was like “Fuck it, I’m going to go on my own and try to do this,” I was so inexperienced about so many types of problems. Things would come in and I just wouldn’t know what to do. I’d take something apart and the springs were just destroyed and I didn’t know what kind of springs I should put in there, I just didn’t know every single thing. I would have to call Brian Muldoon, and a couple of times he had to come over and bail me out. It was really stressful, especially for being twenty-one, and being by yourself, in this like warehouse building with this couch they want done by next week, and…[Laughs] it’s really stressful!
BLVR: But it’s all about the bluff, right? You have to sort of pretend like you know what you’re doing.
JW: Yeah, you’ve got to pretend. I remember a couple of times when I re-upholstered someone’s whole chair and charged them $600 and delivered it, and I sat down when I was finished and said “Aw, shit, this is the wrong foam in here, it’s way too stiff. It’s like sitting on wood,” and there was nothing I could do, I had to deliver it. I just had to talk my way out of it. This customer was like “Whoa, this is really hard,” and I’m like “Well yeah, you know, don’t worry, the foam is going to break down, you gotta let it settle in.” I didn’t know what to do. A lot of stuff like that went on.
BLVR: Did you ever get into taxidermy?
JW: Yeah, yeah, definitely. I have a huge taxidermy collection at home.
BLVR: All antique?
JW: A lot of them are. I’ve got a zebra head, two gazelles, an eland, a kudu, a giant white elk…
BLVR: How about a dik-dik?
JW: What was that? What?
BLVR: Have you got a dik-dik? It’s like a small antelope. They have them all over East Africa. Did you ever do any taxidermy yourself?
JW: At one point I thought, “Well, while I have my own shop I should really get into every mode of upholstery I can and learn what I can about everything,” so I remember calling up a bunch of places that were upholstering coffins, three or four in the Detroit area. I called them all up and they just would not hire me. I was like, “I’m an experienced upholsterer and I’ve been working in the trade for years,” and they were like “Why do you want to upholster coffins?” They thought I was some sicko or something, but I wanted to learn that part of the trade because there are certain techniques used in tufting and working with silk in coffins that you don’t get to do in regular upholstery, but they just wouldn’t hire me. They were like, “You know, a lot of this stuff is prefabricated and we just glue it together when it gets here and you don’t want to work here.”
BLVR: And there’s not a whole lot of re-upholstering going on there, either.
JW: [Laughs riotously] No, there’s not. I didn’t think of that.