I was driving by the intersection of 16th and South Van Ness in San Francisco one day when I spotted what looked like an Eero Saarinen side chair (with metal legs) sat in a pile of discarded furniture. I turned my car around to take a closer look, and turns out it IS an authentic Knoll Saarinen side chair(!!!). The upholstery was in poor condition with rips and stains, but other than that, the chair looks like it’s in a solid condition.
I brought my treasured find back home and did a little more research into re-upholstery of the chair. Below are the resources I found:
The takeaway is that the reupholstery job is not particularly straightforward — I can either do it myself by taking apart the existing upholstery, make a pattern, then sew the whole thing together. Even though I have worked on some soft goods / sewing projects, the tasks involved seemed way too advanced for my undertaking.
The second option is to have it professionally reupholstered, the cost of which could be at least $200. I took the chair to two local upholstery shops. Both of them gave me a quote of ~$400 plus the cost of the fabric. I was not ready to spend $400 on a chair.
A month or two passed, and the chair was just sitting in my garage, staring at me — I had to do something about it. I kept wondering what it would be like to take the upholstery apart and work with whatever there is. I figured I had nothing to lose, since I got the chair for free.
This instructable details the process of taking the chair apart and turning it into something that Eero Saarinen might not approve of, but I think is not too shabby and fits in with the mid-century modern decor. The best part about it was that it costed me close to nothing.
Step 1: Take the Chair Apart & De-upholster
The outside upholstery was nasty, but wait until you see the inside! It appears that the foam used underneath the chair back had hardened and crumbled over the years, producing this super nasty yellow powder. The fabric was held onto the chair by these tiny nails. I had to use a prying tool and the prying end of a hammer to get them off. Do this on a piece of large butcher paper because that foam dust gets everywhere.
As for the chair seat, it's another level of nastiness. Underneath is this sticky greenish soft foam that needed scraping off from the plywood base. This plywood (I imagine from the 60's or 70's) is actually quite nice, and as soon as I saw it, I imagined showing it off somehow in the final product.
Step 2: Sand Down & Paint the Seat Back
The seat back needs to be sanded down to get rid of the crusted up foam later. However, the piece is made from molded fiberglass — super nasty stuff if you breath in the dust. Be sure to wear a proper dust mask! I used an orbital sander, and sand it in a properly ventilated area. Once that part is done, I used spackle to cover up the nail holes. I did leave the texture of the fiberglass as-is because I like the way it looked. Once the spackle is dry, I sanded it down once more and spray-painted the piece black in a spray booth.
Refer to this guide on sanding and painting fiberglass: http://www.wikihow.com/Paint-Fiberglass-Chairs
Step 3: Plug, Sand Down & Refinish the Seat Base
As previously mentioned, I was intrigued by the plywood core of the seat base. One problem was that it has four large holes in it (about 1.5" diameter each). I cut up a wooden dowel rod of that diameter to the thickness of the plywood and "plug" in those holes, using wood glue to attach them together.
I then sanded the whole piece down using an orbital sander (pictured). Once that is done, I finished the seat base with this waxy thing I found called "the good stuff." It brought the wood texture to life!
Step 4: Add the Felt Seat Pad
To cover the screw holes and make the seating surface nice and soft, I had to somehow make a seat pad. Initially, I thought about thick leather, but that would be expensive. I then started looking at felt on Amazon.com, and found this synthetic felt thing (in the perfect size for cutting up): http://www.amazon.com/Feltfriend-3mm-Thickness-Wa...
Once I got the 20"x20" felt material, I placed the seat base over it and traced the outline. Then using a heavy duty fabric scissors, I cut the felt piece. I ironed the edges of the felt pad a little bit to reduce the fray and added a little bit of a bevel. I then attached the felt onto the seat base using double-sized tape.
Step 5: Put It All Together
Put back together the seat back, the seat base, and the metal legs. Because the chair is now not covered up in upholstery, the screws are a tiny bit too long, so I used nuts and washers as spacers, which worked out beautifully aesthetically.
I saved the label from the original chair and reapplied it onto the new chair. And voila! — the Eero Saarinen side chair that costed me close to nothing to repair (and I didn't have to go through the headache of getting it reupholstered. It's quite comfortable to sit it despite the lack of upholstery! I wonder if Saarinen would approve (probably not).