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Upholstery CSI: Reading the Evidence

Updated: Dec 26, 2023


As someone who's woven their career within the threads of the upholstery trade, I thought I was well-versed in the nuances of the craft—until I stepped into the world of "Upholstery CSI: Reading the Evidence." at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum of Colonial Williamsburg. This exhibition brought to life through Don and Elaine Bogus's generosity was like turning the pages of a history book written in fabric and furniture.

The gallery, a hallowed space where each chair and sofa was not merely a piece of furniture but a narrative waiting to be told, offered an intimate glimpse into the world of 18th-century upholstery. As a craftsman, I am no stranger to the transformation that occurs under skilled hands; however, the depth of history that unfolded before me was overwhelming.

The Rachel Elisabeth and Joshua Ryan Wilkinson Gallery, a testament to the craft through the loving dedication of L. Kay Wilkinson, presented the exhibition with such an intricate array that it felt like stepping into a detective story. Each item on display, from the Eastern Virginia easy chair to the London sofa, revealed layers of history I had never considered, despite my familiarity with the tools and materials of the trade.

These pieces, honored with the Excellence in Exhibition Award by the American Alliance of Museums in May 2019, showcased the silent evolution of style and substance in the upholstery craft. The faded glory of the 200-year-old fabrics, worn thin by time and trends, whispered of the countless individuals who had once rested upon them, each leaving a mark upon the fabric of history.

Discovering the work of Leroy Graves, the upholstery conservator from Colonial Williamsburg, was like unearthing a treasure trove of knowledge. His non-intrusive upholstery method, the Graves Approach, revealed unprecedented care and dedication to preserving the integrity of each piece. This approach, now adopted by museums worldwide, seeks to return furniture to its earliest form without disturbing the frame or existing upholstery, a philosophy that resonated with my own reverence for the craft.

As I navigated through the gallery, the connection between past and present artisans became palpable. The meticulous restorations and the detailed documentation in Graves' book, which I thumbed through with a sense of discovery, painted a picture of an art form that is as much about preservation as it is about presentation.

"Upholstery CSI: Reading the Evidence" was not just an exhibition; it was an enlightening journey back in time, a lesson in the importance of every stitch in the grand design of history. Leaving the gallery, I carried with me a renewed respect for my profession and a deeper appreciation for the silent language of upholstery that Leroy Graves so eloquently translated for us all. In the fibers and frames of historic furniture, I now saw a trade and a legacy—a part of the shared tapestry of our collective past.

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