How to Re-Design a Chair

Or, How I Turned a Vintage Find into my Beloved Queen’s Gambit Inspired Chair!

I know, I know. It’s been years since anyone has talked about The Queen’s Gambit. But I think it’s time to watch it again, just for the style inspiration if nothing else. It’s been a couple years since I redesigned a vintage chair into my own version of the chair I absolutely fell in love with. Aside from the before and after photos I posted, the process of redesigning the chair has never been shown. Do you remember this chair? Did it jump out at you the same way it did for me? I remember scanning and re-scanning the frames on the screen to get the best views of it with no one sitting on it. For me, this chair became the main character of the show.

Redesigning a chair is definitely more of an art than a science. For me, it was like I was back in art school creating a sculpture. I guess that’s what beautiful furniture is after all – functional sculpture. I found this vintage chair for $20 and thought it was a swivel rocker at first, but was so happy to find it had legs under the skirt. You can certainly add legs to a swivel rocker and remove the old mechanism but it’s always nice to have one less step in an already lengthy process.

Once I removed the skirt, the chair looked less formal. The legs were chunky, so they would be replaced once all the chopping up was complete. The legs should be sleek tapered mid century legs, of course. If you are changing out the legs on your own chair, you need to make sure the height is correct for the project. Ideally, the height of the seat edge plus cushion will be around 18″. The old legs unscrewed from the frame which made that step simple, though legs can be sawed off at the top and replaced with brackets for screwing new legs on if necessary.

With all the fabric and padding removed, we can see the full potential for a new look! This chair would have been perfect for a more simple restyle, it had such a cool shape already. If I wanted a more simple process, I would have kept the arms and seat edge the same, and just changed the style of the back. The arms here are pushed back from the front edge, creating a small T on the original cushion. The back could have been padded without the original attached cushion, which would have updated the look substantially. But. That’s just not the look I was going for.

The first thing I did was cut the tops of the arms. I shaved off the overhang to make them flush all the way to the top. It wasn’t difficult with a good jigsaw. A small circular saw could also have been used.

The second step was cutting down the back rails. This was pretty scary actually, and I didn’t know for sure that it would work to still hold the springs up. There’s quite a bit of pressure on that top rail, so I had reason to be concerned. But, the rail held while I did the rest of the frame work to re-secure them. The back was pretty wobbly at this point.

I had to add pieces of wood to get the desired shape between the arms and the back. When you’re redesigning a chair, you have to imagine where your new padding is going to be stapled, and add rails to staple to.

I then had to carve out the back of the arm to get a continuous scooped shape down the back heading up to the top of the arm. Good saws and protective gear are essential for this process.

I added blocks to the fronts of the arms so they would be closer to the front edge, eliminating the need for a T cushion. I also added a curved rail to the top of the back with supports to secure the top where the springs are attached, long supports down the sides and entire back of the chair, and finally, the wings which are shaped to make the curve down the side. I don’t think I changed the springs at all. If you’re redesigning a chair yourself, you will need excellent adhesives such as polyurethane expanding adhesive (Gorilla Glue) and a good carpenters wood glue. The wood is also secured with screws.

The fabric I selected was a teal blue wool. I thought it was apropos for the style and “era” of the chair. It also looks great in my space. The seat upholstery is pretty simple. I used foam for the seat edge. The arms were upholstered separately from the wings, and were simply secured to the inside frame as there are no pull-throughs. The arms are stapled at the top to follow the design of the inspiration chair.

The back is channeled 2” foam, with seams running down each flute. I used soft foam so it would be easier to get the round and puffy sides. The foam is stapled at the top edge of the wood supports I added. In order for the buttons to not completely disappear into the folds, it was necessary to add stitches between the flutes to hold the buttons at the surface, yet still be able to pull them back to create a rounded effect. You’d think this was a textbook technique from how well it worked, but this whole process was totally improvised, and I had to keep the creative juices flowing to get the look I wanted. There’s no rule book to redesigning furniture – you just have to make it up as you go!

The outside arms and back are hand stitched along the entire edge of the chair, with piping. Here, you can see the temporary staples are holding the fabric in place. I selected 5” soft foam for the cushion, but finished the border height at 4” to give a rounded puffy look to the cushion. It gives the chair a cartoon appeal.

The hand stitching detail along the top edge of the arm (and along the front of the wing) is the best way I could think of to get this curvy look. I find the shape here quite striking and very unique.

The most wonderful thing about redesigning a chair is that it will be entirely unique. You can see that although the major components of my inspiration chair were translated quite well, the chair that I’ve created is truly it’s own unique design.

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