“I wish I had a ‘before’ picture of that sofa,” says David Gilkeson, owner of The French Thistle, as we settle into his intimate James Island upholstery shop. Gilkeson scrolls through furniture pictures on his iPad with a devotion and pride usually reserved for beloved grandchildren. “The frame looked like it had been thrown off the back of a truck!” he says. He shows the “after” photo: a sofa with impeccable new upholstery and revamped cushions that looks like the only vehicle it’s been near is a delivery truck. That, briefly, is Gilkeson’s magic: the thrill of the makeover.
It’s a makeover that goes bone deep, down to the frame. Furniture is stripped down, retied, re-stuffed with down, foam or spring down, and re-covered. Cushions are refreshed by going from one long back or bottom cushion to two or three cushions, or vice versa, for a whole new look. Add tufting, piping or a skirt in endless options and combinations to achieve the ideal redesign. And that’s before you even get to selecting fabric. A world of texture and color from Scalamandré, Lee Jofa, Brunschwig & Fils, Schumacher, Robert Allen, Sunbrella, Donghia, Pindler, Romo, P. Kauffman and more fill the showroom and swatch room with a manageable size of usable options that are comprehensive but not overwhelming. The just-right selection lends itself to design inspiration rather than paralyzation.
What’s wonderful about playing with fabric is the thrill of possibility, of finding the sublime in the mundane. It’s a world where practicality and creativity meet. On a recent visit, a Summerville watercolorist breezed by with her inspired choices: a Lee Jofa linen of multicolor Asian-inspired birds and a tweedy Robert Allen gray.
“We have a lot of repeat business,” says Gilkeson. “We go to drop off a piece and we end up coming back with a couple more.” Gilkeson or his son Nathan, who heads the workshop, oversees each pickup and delivery. “We have clients who have extremely valuable pieces of art, and I want to make sure they’re given all possible care.” Gilkeson picks up and delivers all over the Lowcountry, from Awendaw to Edisto, and works with decorators and designers citywide. “I have good relationships with designers, and I do have some favorites, but I don’t make any recommendations in that area,” he says with cheerful diplomacy.
Charleston clients lean toward linen, damask and velvet. “You can’t do downtown without damask,” he says, adding, “I never thought I’d sell velvet in this hot climate, but I’ve sold a ton of it.” Gilkeson, a veteran in the upholstery world, came to Charleston a little more than two years ago from Roanoke, Virginia, where he owned a well-regarded upholstery shop also called The French Thistle, a nod to French and Scottish roots.
When I comment on velvet’s thinness he quickly explains double rubs, a measurement of a fabric’s resistance to wear. The higher the double rub, the more durable the fabric. It’s not a straightforward connection of thick and thin, but depends on weave and fabric fiber. Gilkeson hands me a thick paisley to feel. “That’s only 9,000 double rubs,” he explains. “It’s barely better than silk. You could use it for drapery, or on a decorative chair.” Velvet, by comparison, generally has 200,000 double rubs. “Velvet is soft,” he concedes, “but it’s tough. It wears like iron. It’s one of the most durable fabrics you can do.” As far as trends go, Gilkeson says the dominant neutral of the day is gray.
Color, texture and detail are key in this tactile business, and Gilkeson is a hands-on guy. “I do a lot of the work myself,” he says. (And he has the photos to prove it.)
Gilkeson’s best advice on re-upholstering? “Don’t seek too many opinions. Everyone’s taste is different. When you get everyone else involved it makes the process harder. You’re the one who has to live with it, and you’re the one who has to love it.”
Tori Coscas is a Charleston-based writer.