Keaven Hartt of Willa Hartt Upholstery on Giving Heirloom Furniture New Life

Keaven Hartt, founder and owner of Portland-based Willa Hartt Upholstery, discovered a love for furniture design while taking an intro to woodworking class early in her college career at Maine College of Art and Design. She went on to earn a BFA in woodworking and furniture design, and wrote a senior thesis on upholstery (which was not taught at MECA&D at the time) with the aid of books and a scrappy, can-do attitude. A self-described “solopreneur,” the upholstress spends her free time working on projects with her husband and rescue dogs, including building her own studio with a rooftop garden, or tending to her orchard of apple, pear, cherry, plum, and peach trees, as well as a grape and kiwi arbor. In her interview with MH+D Inside Out, Hartt pulls back the curtain on the upholstery process, and explains why choosing to reupholster your furniture—while not an inexpensive course of action—is the most sustainable option. 

Q. How would you describe your style/design aesthetic?

A. Eclectic! I’ve always loved flea markets, discovering old, abandoned pieces of treasure that I can incorporate into my own space and give new life to! This is one of the most exciting parts of upholstery: renewing heirloom pieces to give them a new lease on life.

Q. Can you describe the reupholstery process?

A. Reupholstery is all about tearing something down to its bones and rebuilding it to be better and stronger than before. I learn something new with almost every piece I work on. Many upholsterers have different ways of doing things, and I love seeing how and why something was upholstered before it came to me! I also love the opportunity to change certain things, such as the trim details, to customize them for the next chapter.

Q. What is the most important thing to keep in mind when considering an upholstery project?

A. Upholstery is not a money-saving option! You can expect to pay at least as much as you would for a higher-end, brand-new piece. Remember that you are hiring a skilled craftsperson to custom-build you something. Upholstery is an investment, so you should choose a piece that you are totally in love with, or have a strong sentimental attachment to, and then have fun with really making it your own! The exterior fabric and the padding underneath can always be replaced with something better, but when it comes to the bones of the piece, what you’ve got is what you’ve got. Before attempting to reupholster a piece, make sure it is sturdy (when in doubt, give it a good jiggle!). If it’s not, we may be able to add some strength to the interior joinery, but it’s always best to have a strong base to start. Plus, good lines and shapes can’t be replaced or fixed. Find a piece where the shape really speaks to you, even if the exterior is hideous!

Q. What is your favorite fabric to work with and why?

A. I love working with prints and pattern matching: the challenge of making everything line up perfectly is so satisfying to get right!

Q. Do you have a favorite upholstery project that you’ve worked on?

A. Honestly, no. I genuinely love what I do, and each new project is exciting and fun. I tend to like smaller projects with faster turnaround times (such as side chairs, as opposed to sofas) just because I constantly look forward to seeing what comes next, but I never rush things! I take my time with each piece, and work on projects one at a time, giving them my undivided attention.

Q. Why do you think upholstery/reupholstery is important from a sustainability standpoint?

A. When you choose to reupholster as opposed to buying a brand new piece of furniture, there are so many sustainable benefits. Not only saving an entire frame from winding up in the landfill (where it would continue to contribute to pollution for several decades), reupholstery offers a much smaller carbon footprint than new-build furniture. Consider the transportation pollution alone: getting things shipped to and from various other countries. Plus, all that lumber usually comes from clear-cutting. Not to mention, newer build, mass-produced furniture is most often built in a far less sturdy and enduring way than furniture built in decades past; mass-scale, newer build pieces are designed and built to be replaced sooner rather than later, and are usually a nightmare to reupholster because they weren’t put together with that goal in mind!

Q. How has your upholstery business evolved since you first started?

A. The business itself hasn’t evolved so much—besides becoming busier—but I certainly have! Owning your own business is very different from working for someone else; I wear many hats, and have become quite adept at juggling duties and switching between tasks. It’s important to me to offer each of my clients the individual attention that they and their special projects deserve. I work hard to ensure that I know all the necessary details to complete each piece to the highest possible level of quality, and make each and every one of my clients as happy as possible with the finished product!

Q. How does your business model work?

A. While each project is truly unique, there are a set number of steps involved: People contact me for an initial consultation and quote, and I provide a rough estimate for costs, usually based on a photo and some basic measurements. When needed, I make house calls. If an initial quote is accepted, I work with each customer to find the perfect fabric for their project. I no longer accept COM (Customer’s Own Material); this way I can help guide my clients through the fabric selection process, in order to ensure that we have what we need for the best possible outcome. A 50 percent deposit locks the client into my schedule, and allows for the purchase of any necessary materials. I never accept frames until I’m ready to begin the work, due to my limited space; I contact each client when I’m ready to begin work, and we schedule the pick-up/drop-off of their piece to get it to my shop!

Q. Do you practice other art/design forms, in addition to upholstery? How do they compare?

A. Although I am trained in building wood furniture, I haven’t really done that since I left school, on account of not having the shop space set up. I prefer upholstery, anyways: less sawdust! I also do just about every type of textile-based hand-craft you can think of: knitting, cross-stitch, embroidery, sewing, etc.—it’s all very therapeutic. I love everything creative, and am always eager to learn a new skill. Upholstery is like a hybrid of lots of other art forms; it requires precision, planning, math, careful templating and cutting, sewing, hammering, stapling, and so on, so it really can’t compare to much else, when you consider all the skills involved!

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