Bruno Lopez is one of those craftsman who isn’t messing around. He takes the craft of upholstery VERY seriously. Born and educated in France, Bruno’s shop in Brooklyn, New York is home to his company, Atelier de France, Inc.
The mission of Atelier de France is to promote the knowledge of the hidden techniques of traditional upholstery, as well as to be an exclusive purveyor of organic and fully recyclable upholstered furniture.
With that said, I’d like to introduce you to the maestro of old school upholstery, Bruno Lopez:
Didn’t that video just leave you wanting more? Here’s an exclusive interview Bruno did for Upholstery Club and ModHomeEc. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t mind hanging out in his studio to learn how to pad with some of that blonde horsehair. (I wonder if it’s been bleached???)
Without further adieu, meet Bruno:
- How many years now have you been upholstering?
2. I’ve read about the influences of your mom and dad, but did you ever think about doing other non-artisan work, besides your music?
I’m a Freemason and it’s a rather intellectual endeavor, it keeps my mind sharp and my soul alive.
3. How long was your apprenticeship? For readers who aren’t really familiar with an upholstery apprenticeship, can you tell us a little bit about how that goes?
In 1976, after High school graduation I did enter a trade school that specializes in all furniture trade.
I did sign a 3 years contract with an employer and ended up working in a shop plus technical schooling one day a week. (CFA La Bonne Graine)
We were graded in terms of our performance and proficiency at executing correct forms and shapes relating to various styles of French furniture.
We had to master the square stools and every 6 months were required to make a version of it, whether plain, with springs, without, with spring edge, tufted, with hair and with foam.
The French square stool if very precise in French Upholstery training and to this day remains the standard for becoming an Upholsterer.
For graduation day we were 200 kids in a room with the same chair to produce, it was a Louis XVI dining room chair with a medallion back, sprung, and we had exactly 8 hours to produce it.
No staples, all tacks. Every step of the fabrication was graded, from webbing to trimming.
It is still to this day, the prerequisite for graduation.
Once graduated you receive a CAP, Certificate of Professional Aptitude. All this training is under the department of education and all diplomas a nationally recognized as if you were to get a BA in the states.
After the CAP you can do a BP (professional diploma) which is 2 more years of training .
There are 3 ways of getting Upholstery training in France:
– C.F.A ( centre de formation d’apprentis)
– Boulle School
– Compagnons du Devoir
4. What is the actual significance of being a Master Upholsterer?
In France, to become a Master Upholsterer diploma is a state certification.
– If you already acquired the proper certification you can applied for a “Brevet de Maitrise”, this will prepare you to managerial functions. Drawing, prototyping, human resources etc. It is a Master’s degree.
– If you entered the Compagnons du Devoir, you are required to do a CAP in 3 years and then travel France for 6 years, during this time (tour de France) you spend 1 year in different towns and you are assigned to different shops, at the end you will be required to make a master piece to be received as full fledge Master in the Compagnons du Devoir paradigm.
– If you entered the Meilleur Ouvrier de France competition, you are assigned a project upon rigorous guidelines and you will be judge upon your proficiencies, abilities, technical knowledge, writing skill, presentation and personality. This completion is every 4 years, and you have a full year to get it done. If you win, you receive a medal and a diploma of Master Upholsterer that is equivalent of a Master’s degree. With this diploma you can teach college classes and you are the elite of France within your trade.
All of the above applies to ALL trades, if you’ve seen a cooking show with a chef wearing a gold medal on a tricolor ribbon, he or she is a Meilleur Ouvrier de France, therefore a Master.
5. When did you first open your own shop, how many people did you have working there? Did you do most everything yourself, or was it divided up by job?
I did everything by myself for 5 years.
6. When did you hire your first employee? How many people work for you now?
I hired my first employee in 1991, her name was Diane, she previously was a writer for House & Garden and decided to become an Upholsterer at the age of 32. She went to London College of Furniture and did a full year schooling there. She graduated with honor and then went to work for a prominent shop in London. Upon her return to the states she called Edward Cooke at the MFA in Boston, she was looking for a traditional shop and he advised her to come see me.
She stayed on for 3 years than she opened her shop in Vermont.
7. Does a piece of furniture you tear down dictate how you will reupholster it?
Not necessarily, if a mistake was done I tend to correct the mistake.
If it was upholstered right I would not change a thing.
Right now we have a pair of Pierre Chareau (1930’s) armchairs that were just sold at Christie’s for $180,000.00. The Upholstery is totally wrong, the materials used are wrong, the springs are wrong, the upholstery fabrication is second generation and was done quick n’ dirty to satisfy an antique dealer’s budget.
Our responsibility is to re-create the original upholstery shape with better materials.
In that instance the springs will come from France, their gauge and wire quality is truer than the domestic ones, also they are calibrated, which means they do not twist nor kink upon compression. Also the choice of size is much greater than what we have here and they are double knotted.
All the under upholstery will be done with herringbone linen webbing and 9 oz linen.
All padding will be horse hair.
8. I know you are a master of horsehair, burlap and muslin padding, do you also use foam and other modern materials like nylon webbing instead of jute?
Yes we use different materials on newly built furniture depending on the job/client specs and budget.
As this moment we are furnishing a house where all furniture is done with foam.
For high-end work we use genuine latex pincore.
9. Is there a marked difference if someone decides to use foam rather than pad their furniture using traditional upholstery techniques?
Yes, traditional is much more expensive, very time consuming, and when you charge by the hour rate, it become a very expensive proposition very fast.
10. Can you compare modern vs. traditional in terms of labor, cost, and longevity?
If you do a new traditional treatment in jute, the life expectancy of your work will be in function of the shelf life of the jute.
11. Is most of your work these days restoration?
No we do everything, from traditional to contemporary to custom built.
12. What is your favorite piece to upholster? Least favorite?
I enjoy Louis XV, Herter Brothers; my favorite period would have to be the XIXth century.
Making new furniture form drawing to completion is also very rewarding.
My least favorite would have to be stripping!
13. What is your specialty, like diamond tufting, building from scratch, spring tying, etc?
Anything XIXth century and custom built.
14. What do you think about the recent interest there is in learning upholstery,
how to do it DIY style, and how to learn old school techniques? Talk a little bit about that.
I think it is positive but more needs to be done in order to legitimize the trade in the US.
I would want to see the same legitimacy as plumbers, electricians and mechanics.
It takes years of practice and study to become an upholsterer, you need to be intuitive with a mechanical common sense.
The DIY style is limited and does not address genuine training in becoming a professional upholsterer.
Investment of time is paramount and there is no shortcut. It takes years to train the eyes and the hands, particularly when it comes to traditional work.
The hands need to acquire strength and dexterity; I always get the analogy of the hands of a potter. Same kind of physical discipline.
15. If you were going to do it again, would you have chosen upholstery as your profession? What are some of your other talents that you have?
I write music and I used to be a semi-pro at playing trumpet. That was 28 years ago. I have been very attracted to cooking and guitar making.
16. Have you ever taught upholstery to people other than those you are training?
I taught at North Bennett Street School in Boston, it was very successful.
17. Do you plan on passing down your knowledge?
Yes I do, I’m working on something right now to make it happen.
Would you consider holding some intense workshops for people like me who want to get better using traditional methods?
Yes I’m planning to offer intensive classes in traditional Upholstery.
18. What advice would you give a young ‘buck’ who wants to build an upholstery business today?
Read all you can about upholstery, build yourself a library, French and English.
The French books have great drawings and pictures and they speak for themselves.
Strip furniture and take notes, make diagrams.
Go to museum and learn period styles as well as art history.
Go to furniture stores and try to dissect how things are put together.
Take a sewing class.
Train yourself to spit tacks.
19. When you’re long gone, what will people remember about you?
I have never thought of this one, but now you mentioned it…it’s a hard question and I would have to ponder on it.
20. Add anything else you ‘d like people to know about you or your business.
We do upholstered walls.
Bruno is the REAL DEAL, none of this DIY upholstery falderal. He’s an artist really, using furniture as his medium. He’s passionate about the value of furniture preservation done correctly. This trade is waning and we need people like Bruno to pass on their knowledge and expertise. Upholstery is so labor intense, unless an upholsterer is doing high volume turnaround, or antique preservation work, it’s almost impossible to make a living at it. The demand may not be what it used to be for tradesmen like Bruno, but the interest in rescuing furniture has sparked the curiosity of a new generation. Many are interested, but few pursue the arduous path. As long as we have the knowledge of those who’ve gone before, the trade will not die.
I’m guessing Bruno is either writing a book, working on a documentary, or both. I’d also venture to say that he could qualify as a furniture historian at any institution of higher learning. It certainly sounds like he’s on his designated path. I predict that we will be hearing a lot more from Bruno Lopez, Master Upholsterer. Thank you so much Bruno.
All images: Bruno Lopez