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Woven Inspiration recovers the gilded age

Markets | July 1, 2020 | By:

Woven Inspiration owner Christine Becker welcomes the challenge of preservation—of history and her craft.

by Holly Eamon

Christine Becker was destined for a life immersed in design. Born in Verona, Italy, she spent her childhood captivated by the city’s medieval architecture before moving as a teen to the artist-inhabited neighborhood of Greenwich Village, N.Y.

Influence came from within her home as well. “My grandmother and mother sewed, and we made everything by hand—including the upholstery and furniture. That’s how you maintained your property,” she says. “The hands-on experience was far more valuable than going to college and getting the education.”

In 2018, the Woven Inspiration team used 50 yards of silk damask from France to reupholster the walls of the music room inside the 1892 Bishop’s Palace, a three-story, 19,000-square-foot National Historic Landmark in Galveston, Texas. Photo: Woven Inspiration.

Passion meets business

Becker took trade courses such as upholstering and refinishing at New York University and completed her degree in Houston, Texas, where she opened her first shop, Upholstery Plus Fabrics, in the downtown Museum District in 1988. The location afforded her several opportunities to master her historic upholstery expertise. 

As the shop grew over the next 18 years, so did Becker’s interest in gilded mansion projects. This interest eventually led her to move to Galveston, Texas, the current location of her interior design studio, Woven Inspiration.

Built during the Gilded Age, which spanned the late 1800s and early 1900s, gilded mansions are known for their extravagance, meticulous detail and intriguing family histories. In 2018, Becker and her team completed one of their most intricate and high-profile mansion projects: reupholstering the walls and furniture within the music room and the gold room of the 1892 Bishop’s Palace, a three-story, 19,000-square-foot National Historic Landmark in Galveston’s East End Historic District.

A perfect match

“Wall upholstery renders the wall visually soft and slightly curved with the help of a beautiful pattern and rich texture. This can help transform a room and transport you into a different era,” Becker says. The walls of the music room of the Bishop’s Palace are lined with silk damask patterns in a shade of silver so specific it took Becker months to source and then match when upholstering and painting the furniture. The search for silk to line the gold room’s walls, featuring a Newport leaf pattern, wasn’t any easier; it had to match the room’s stained glass windows.

Before scouring dozens of mills and fabric stores, Becker met with members of the Galveston Historical Foundation, who provided photographs of the original property and research support throughout the project to ensure consistent alignment on and approval of the selected fabrics and patterns. “When you’re giving a tourist attraction like this a makeover, it has to retain that ‘wow’ effect,” Becker says. “We kept very close contact with the foundation.”

Mills across Europe helped Becker and her team fine-tune all of the patterns. “We just waited very patiently for samples; you can go through hundreds on projects like this. It’s time-consuming but very important for matching the patterns and dye lots,” Becker says. “We were fortunate to be able to find the right colors, but it took nearly a year of going back and forth with both the mills and the foundation.”

The final products included 50 yards of silk damask from France for the music room, along with a raised chenille silver damask pattern for the upholstery of the silver-leafed furniture, and 68 yards of gold Scalamandré silk from Italy for the gold room.

Serious craftsmanship

Most of the artistic expression shines through during the next phase: installation. Historical preservation projects like this are undertaken infrequently, so the liners, adhesives and technique must be of the highest quality for long-term durability. Before applying the silk to the walls, Becker and her team sewed the patterns together using industrial upholstering sewing machines and silk thread.

A custom liner was applied first to protect against moisture—an important consideration for the island-based location. The silk was applied over the liner using special adhesives and cording placed around the fabric to hold it in place along with industrial, stainless-steel staples. It took six days and five people to complete the gold room; the music room took four days.

“It also took some very serious craftsmanship,” Becker says. “For this kind of work, you have to know how to do pattern matching without a computer—and instead with everything laid out on a cutting table while being very precise. And you have to have good eyes. I can see if one-eighth of an inch is not placed right.”

Unfortunately, this level of craftsmanship is waning—a shared struggle across the sewing industry. Though Becker’s employee count doubled from four to eight last year, the requirements to join her staff are not easily met. “If you’re hiring a musician, you don’t want someone who two months ago started playing guitar,” Becker says. “My employees must have a minimum of 15 years of experience, including tufting skills, which creates the folds, buttons and channels you see in antique chairs. It’s a different skill set than putting fabric on a sofa.” Most members of her team have 30 to 40 years of experience.

Well aware of the declining availability of craftspeople, Becker is working to draw in the next generation and teach them these skills. She has partnered with local schools to teach students about her business and help them get hands-on upholstery experience. “Plenty of videos and tutorials are available online to teach people the basics of this craft, but it involves a lot of physical work too,” Becker says. “My company provides the whole spectrum of services, from sewing and pattern matching to using specialized equipment and building up furniture with the right pads, webbing and springs. But it’s growing harder to get people interested in physical labor. I’ve seen enough interest in others to keep me hopeful, but this is a dying art; I’m going to hold onto it for as long as I can.” 

Every day is different

Though Becker considers herself semi-retired, her love for history and preservation continues to keep her calendar full. The success of her Bishop’s Palace project led to more work for the Galveston Historical Foundation, including the recent reupholstery of the captain’s quarters inside the 1877 tall ship ELISSA, a floating museum and one of only three ships of its kind in the world to still actively sail. It also opened the door to her team’s 2019 installation of a striped Scalamandré silk wall in the sitting room of the W. H. Stark House, a 14,000-square-foot Victorian home in Orange, Texas. “The house hadn’t had a makeover since the ’70s; working on that project was beyond happiness for me,” Becker says. “It’s such an honor to be able to do this work.”

When Becker and her team are not beautifying historic landmarks, they’re often preserving individual clients’ antiques and heirlooms, many of which are from the early 1900s. And because of their proximity to the Gulf Coast, they also stay busy with coastal projects. “No two jobs are identical at all. I’ll design contemporary coastal condo interiors and then turn around and work on a chair from the 1800s,” Becker says. “It keeps every day exciting.”

Occasionally, a special “from-scratch” order comes along. Becker recently designed and built a 58-inch sofa for a couple’s “tiny home” by the water. The fabric selection process, as usual, was her favorite part. “I love helping people think through all of the needs the fabric must meet, whether that’s durability or softness and everything in between,” she says. “I help them realize they’re not just going out shopping for fabrics; they’re making a design choice for their home that’s suitable for their family. There’s a lot of communication in this line of work, and it’s a heartfelt business without a doubt.” 

Holly Eamon is a business writer and editor based in Minneapolis, Minn.

SIDEBAR: Preserving with purpose

Christine Becker’s interior design studio, Woven Inspiration, specializes in upholstery, fabric and window treatment services—enhanced by the team’s unique expertise in historic restoration. Even when they’re not completing historical projects, Becker and her team find ways to bring the past back to life thanks to their shop location, which is merely steps from a salvage yard. “I’ll often get repurposed wood from the yard for furniture frames; it makes a piece much more enchanting,” Becker says, noting a sofa frame she recently built for a client using pieces of a 1908 piano that was chopped up and dropped in the yard. “Clients love it, and that’s what we’re all about: the art of preservation.”

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