Vanessa Butt and Electra Read-Dagg share a studio in Bernard Road opposite Edge. They both also work part time with another upholsterer, Rachael South, based at Lighthouse Studios in Dalston. Vanessa also teaches upholstery and is the technician at London Metropolitan University.
Electra had her work shown as part of a collection at the Geffrye Museum curated by Second Sitters. The exhibition was later expanded and displayed at the National Centre of Craft and Design, which also included Vanessa’s work.
‘I restore furniture.’ Vanessa explained. ‘A long-term goal for me is to make upholstery more affordable. I feel like it can be a little bit inaccessible, not because we want it to be, but because it takes a lot of time. It’s not just covering furniture with fabric, you also fix bits and pieces.’ One of her ideas to make upholstery more affordable is a ‘finance scheme where people could pay monthly. You are paying more money for something to be reupholstered but it will last you for years and years.’
Electra added: ‘Upholstery isn’t cheap. There are a lot of materials and fabrics involved and it can take a lot of time. There are a lot of places where you can learn traditional and modern upholstery, such as Wendy Shorter Interiors and London Met. I leant at Wendy’s in Hertfordshire.
‘Upholstery is becoming more and more popular with a lot more women learning the craft. This is really exciting as this used to be a very male dominated world.
‘It’s physical work, stripping a piece of furniture down – you get good guns. It’s constantly standing up every day. You strip down a chair that’s 50 years old and it can be pretty gross. Your nose is black when you blow it at the end of the night. You’ve got all these old fibres which have turned to dust.’
Electra’s latest piece, Inka, is made from two and a half hides of black leather and velvet mohair. ‘He has quite the presence. I designed the frame taking inspiration from an old frame I was given and made the legs look like horse hooves.’
Electra explained that the inspiration for the piece was a horse ‘called Inka – this big black stallion that nearly killed me. This horse just stayed with me.’
Electra is currently working on her next piece which is a commission from a client that saw Inka and wanted something in a similar style. ‘It’s a modern tub chair which will be upholstered in leather tassels and grey cotton velvet.’
Before working in upholstery, Electra worked in talent management, was a runner on Harry Potter and also worked for House of Hackney.
‘My mother was a fashion designer in the rag trade. That was where my parents met. My mother then went into interiors, so all her cushions, curtains, and general home furnishings were a big part of what got me interested in fabric and furniture. When I first came to London, I did a basic upholstery course at The College of North West London. I was constantly doing little upholstery projects in my bedroom in a flat share. There were rolls of fabric in the corners and a sewing machine – it was hectic. My mate came in and I said, “I don’t know what I’m doing with my life.” She replied, “Why don’t you just do upholstery?” I made my commitment to do a course on it. It’s been an amazing journey. It’s been the best thing I’ve ever done.’
After her course, Electra went on to work for an artist that used furniture to express herself and make political statements, and was an apprentice to some established upholsterers.
Vanessa was working as a mental health support worker for the charity Mind whilst living in Oxford. She decided that she needed a bit of a break from that job and applied to and got accepted on an interior design course. She was the only person on the course so they suggested she focus on one element. She chose upholstery.
She told us: ‘I slowly set myself up as an upholsterer and worked for other people including an artist. Then I worked in a factory for a while. The first time I set up was in Oxford in a friend’s garage. I started doing commissions in there. There was no electricity or toilet, so that was challenging!’ After that she moved to Bristol and became part of the Bristol Upholstery Collective before working for herself. She moved to London in April last year.
Vanessa said her biggest challenge so far has been marketing and selling herself. ‘It’s really hard because you’re a one woman band who is, at the end of the day, trying to pay the rent. The pressure of social media can also make it challenging.’
When asked about her favourite fabric to work with Electra said: ‘I really love leather. It’s refreshing because there isn’t a grain. You’ve got a hide, you can cut it in any direction, it stretches, I love the smell of it. I also love linens and velvets, and I love natural. It’s about the natural beauty for me, whether it’s a beautiful French linen or an insane hide.’
Electra also does seat rushing, using wild rush from Cornwall and Sussex, and furniture caning using rattan.
Vanessa said: ‘I think the best thing about upholstery is that there is so much variety. I like things that aren’t so pedestrian. I want people to choose wild fabrics.’
‘I think inspiration can come from everywhere.’ Vanessa told us. ‘I’ve named some of my chairs after people in my life. I don’t think they even know they have a chair named after them.’
‘I name every single chair I work on. It always has a gender – it’s never neutral.’ Electra added.
Vanessa said: ‘We have a bit of a laugh about it. It’s so much more than a chair.’
Next year, Vanessa plans to build up more stock from French flea markets.
Electra said: ‘I’d also like to make another indulgent chair, and I’m currently looking at other materials, such as precious metals that I can play around with on furniture. I’m looking at jewellery making courses, hoping to make my own nails and oozy stuff to come out of the furniture.’
This article first appeared in the Craft issue of Discovering Tottenham which was released in November 2018.