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  • Writer's pictureMarni Jameson

Pay Attention to Details -- or Pay Twice -- for Custom Chair Cushions

One of the beauties of my reality home design column is that I make mistakes, so you don’t have to. Which brings me to the sorry saga of my kitchen chair cushions. After what I’ve just been through, I will never take them for granted again.

Like so many everyday items, these household workhorses, the seats of our empires, rise and fall on our attention to detail – or lack of it.

So pull up a chair, as I retrace my fallible steps.

I’d been wanting custom kitchen chair cushions for some time. You can only take a hard chair for so long. I had tied on cheap, ill-fitting, off-the-shelf pads until I found the right chair fabric.

A designer helped me zero in on a transitional geometric teal and lime print that would add some zip and comfort to my sunny kitchen eating area, and protect the woven rush chair seats, as well.

“You want nice cushions, two-to-three inches,” the designer said, holding her thumb and forefinger apart to approximate, “but ask the fabricator.”

You met Ramona Malevsky, the meticulous upholsterer who just recovered my barstools, last week. She specializes in making cushions, benchseats, slipcovers and upholstered headboards to order for a steady stream of residential and commercial customers. Note key words: to order.

I text Malevsky photos of the fabric and chairs along with measurements, and ask how much. She’ll charge $375 to make four cushions, plus the cost of the foam, which depends on its height.

“Whatever you recommend,” I said. “I’d think between two and three inches.”

“Three inches will be better,” she said. Add $45.

She picked up the fabric and one chair for size. Three weeks later she dropped the cushions off at the house. I eagerly unwrapped them, expecting perfection. But I knew instantly, the way you know when you smell burning hair that it’s yours, something was wrong.

The cushions dwarfed the chairs. They jutted over the front edge like an overbite, and looked too thick. The Velcro band that attached them to the chairbacks looked too large, too. When I sat on the chair, it felt like a booster seat. My feet were swinging inches off the ground, an indignity when you’re sitting at your own table.

I composed myself and called Malevsky, who was sorry to hear I wasn’t happy. She would make them right. She came back, looked at the cushion on the chair and said, “I think they look beautiful.” I believed she did.

She also correctly said that she’d done everything we’d agreed on. She would revise them, but would have to charge me an additional $275. I understood.

This time, however, I wanted to give her the right instructions. To get the details just right, I called Dean Stills, co-owner of Stills Upholstery in Longwood, Fla., a family business that has been around nearly 40 years. Stills has worked upholstery miracles for me. I would have sent him this job, but I thought it too small.

I emailed him pictures. Within minutes, he identified the problems and taught me the finer details of chair cushions. Here’s what you should know and what I wish I’d known before I paid for them twice:

  • Thickness – Standard chair height, from front edge to floor, is 18 to 18 ½ inches, as mine were, said Stills. “That’s ergonomically correct. A three-inch piece of foam will feel wrong.” Yep. The thickest a pad for my chairs should be 1 ½ inches. Cushion height also cuts into the standard clearance needed between the seat and the bottom of the table, which should be nine inches minimum. Less, and you can’t cross your legs.

  • Foam type – Seat foam comes in many varieties. Stills suggests you sit on some samples till you find what you like. Firm foam has little give and makes cushions look taught. Softer foam sinks when you sit on it -- think memory foam – and looks less perky. Too thin and you feel the seat beneath. For the makeover, I asked Malevsky to use softer foam half as thick.

  • Piping – Running piping around a cushion edge makes cushions look more finished. I ordered piping, and wasn’t sorry. Stills agrees that piping looks nice, but pointed out it’s a crumb catcher. “It will be fine for your adult household,” he said, “but I wouldn’t recommend it on chairs in homes with five children who eat cereal, and never for a restaurant.”

  • Fasteners – Most readymade chair cushions come with sorry-looking ties, which you fashion into a bow or knot around chairbacks. Some come with shorter straps that attach with Velcro or snaps. I originally asked for Velcro fasteners for a cleaner look, and left the width up to Malevsky. She made the band as wide as the cushion; Stills said ideally ties should be no wider than one inch. For the makeover, I opted for no fasteners at all.

  • Oversized or exact fit – Cushions that extend over the chair edge are common, said Stills. The extension protects the chair edge from wear and is easier on knee backs. I thought it looked like a mistake. “An exact fit isn’t wrong,” he said. “It’s a preference.” On the remake, I asked for cushions to fit the chair exactly.

  • Fabric direction – If your fabric has a pattern with a direction, like a stripe, specify which way you want it to run. Generally, striped patterns run front to back, but is if the chair back has vertical posts, running stripes side to side, perpendicular to the lines on the back, looks better.

  • Larger lesson – Before you order anything custom, learn all you can. Ask for expert advice, and question it. Think all the details through and specify every one, because sometimes it is too late to learn.

A few days later, I got my scaled-down cushions, and no longer felt like Goldilocks in Papa Bear’s chair. They were just right. Details. They are everything.

CAPTION: Take two -- These remade custom chair cushions add comfort and style that readymade cushions can’t. But when you order, mind the details. Photo by Marni Jameson.

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