We met with Mel Shearsmith, the traditional upholsterer, furniture restorer and textile devotee behind A Peculiar Grace and took one of her restored or “sculpted” chairs for a walk around Victoria Park, talking about philosophy, performance and how her artistic background informs her practice as an upholsterer and what the creative community from Bristol Textile Quarter means to her.
What we love about Mel’s approach to upholstery and furniture restoration is her intimate and profound way in which a piece of furniture places us in direct contact with our bodies, acting as a receptacle or a vessel where the human body abandons its full weight in an intimate and tactile meeting place where we can experience both the weightlessness of our physical body and the ethereal membrane of our transient soul.
We continued our conversation at her home, where she showed us her vintage 8 mm Kodak film camera and chatted away about our shared love for the work of the Quay Brothers and the prospects of her returning to writing.
"My practice as an upholsterer and my interest in furniture restoration is informed by and intertwined with my history as an artist."
Who is Mel behind A Peculiar Grace?
Gosh, that is an impossible question.
I’m a vegetarian, a dancer, a writer and a chair sculptor.
My background as an artist still informs me and is the root of what I value - the body; presencing, touch, belonging and interpretation. My practice as an upholsterer and my interest in furniture restoration is informed by and intertwined with my history as an artist. Both processes give equal weight to the journey and the destination. They are reflective, collaborative, re-valuing processes and acts of excavation.
The power of words still has its place too. I’ve been playing with words and what power they have on what I do. For example when I’m working on a chair as a ‘sculptor’, opposed to an ‘upholsterer’, it motivates me to approach it laterally, to be more playful and provocative. I guess I still feel most at home and more of myself in the role of an artist.
What or who inspired the name of your business?
The name ‘A Peculiar Grace’ came from a book I found in a little second hand book shop in Galway while I was performing in a ‘Ghost Estates’ festival. The name jumped out at me (I am constantly gathering words) and I stored it away for future use. Although that was seven years ago, I had no clue how it would become useful.
When and how did you start restoring furniture?
My background is in performance. I’ve spent most of my adult life as an artist, making performance, dance films, sculptural installations, writing, teaching, producing performance events and exhibitions… all of this was informed by my research investigating place, the body and interpretation. I was accepted for a PhD about six years ago, at the time I was elated but the reality was very different. The process fractured the link I had built between the research and my creative practice. As a consequence my artist self went into hiding.
In response to this break I needed to do something simple, something I could touch - where something new could emerge. Learning a new skill that championed a traditional trade appealed to me - reflecting back on this now I can see this was in response to working in universities where many of our traditional (creative) skills are being put aside in favour of digital media. It felt like a small political act of resistance against these institutional changes.
I discovered (disco-covered) a genuine passion for textiles and the inherent beauty and simplicity of wood.
"The chair reflects the one who loves it and this relationship is mutual. It is a relationship of touch. There is something incredibly personal and tender in this meeting place."
How did you come upon the Bristol Textile Quarter and what are the things that you love the most about it?
A friend put me in touch with Emma (who established Bristol Textile Quarter, a collective workshop for textile artists) when I was looking for a workshop space. I took up the flooded corner in BTQ on a temporary basis while waiting for my workshop space to become vacant. The completion date on my intended workshop kept getting pushed back and by the time it was ready for me I was ensconced in BTQ and smitten with the women I share the space with.
The women in BTQ are constantly surprising and inspiring me, each of them is achieving incredible things in their fields. There are the hidden, delicate ways each of us brings our passions and our fears into the space that keeps it constant and vital, focused and full of laughter.
What was your most memorable collaboration so far?
That has to be the 1950’s Danish sofa bed a friend found abandoned on the street in Montpelier. It was a crumbling wreck. It only had three remaining legs, the wooden arms were peeling, the original fabric was falling away from the pinched thin, exposed foam. It was in a sad state but it had so much potential. I stripped it down to its wooden, added new pirelli webbing, commissioned two matching hand-turned legs and sanded the wood back to its original soft skin. A friend spotted him in my workshop while I was re-building and commissioned me to re-cover the sofa in blue wool. He was becoming a huge blue beast, we named him Moby.
When I delivered Moby her two little girls were so thrilled they wouldn't let me leave until they had crowned me Queen of sofas.
"A chair is singular, it holds one body. It is personal. An extension of the self."
What is the driving idea behind your approach to upholstery?
It pivots around the body. The body of the chair and that it holds the body, it is one of the few places that we abandon the full weight of our body into something that holds us. There is something here about cherishing the body it holds, the quiet moment sitting in a chair creates. The chair reflects the one who loves it and this relationship is mutual. It is a relationship of touch. There is something incredibly personal and tender in this meeting place.
With my photoshoot last year I wanted to illustrate the chair as a way to ‘return to the body’, to create an invitation to be playful with this process and that it can be decadent. The chair can be plumptuous, supportive, and a delight.
Chairs seem to be the central piece in your restorative work. Why chairs?
A chair is singular, it holds one body. It is personal. An extension of the self. It represents potential. I love raw naked wood (the touch, the smell) and how furniture puts us in direct contact with our bodies, our senses and allows us to connect through touch.
I believe in restoration. It is a timely (in the current consumer climate), it is a time-rich investment that creates an opportunity to be present and find pleasure in slow processes that the art and act of craftsmanship fosters. It may seem like a small thing but it is a political act to take control, to be conscious consumers, recycling materials and objects to create something new via traditional skills. This way of working also places the customer at the heart of the process. It is a conversation, a collaborative process of thoughtfulness and intention. It is centred in personal investment.
Tell us about your choice of materials and the passion for vintage.
I’m a vegetarian and have been most of my adult life. I wanted my business and the choice of materials I use to reflect my ethics around animal products and by products.
I try to use ethically sourced materials, as much as I am able to. For stuffing I use cotton, wool and coir fibre (the hair from coconuts) - no coconuts were harmed in the de-fuzzing process. I will only use recycled horse hair found in a chair, I wash it and then re-use it. I encourage my customers to use and support small businesses who manufacture textiles from UK wool and thus support sheep farmers in the UK. Wool is my favourite textile, its versatile, bendy, easy to clean and magically keeps you warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
Vintage textiles are a magpie's dream, their discovery launches me into an adventure of discovery, the history of the designer and then diving into the archive of their designs and influences, alternative colour ways, processes, etc.
"It may seem like a small thing but it is a political act to take control, to be conscious consumers, recycling materials and objects to create something new via traditional skills."
Can you talk us through your creative and work process?
It changes. It depends on the piece of furniture, my customer, the fabric. I try and take traditional upholstery commissions. I want to use my hammer rather than the staple gun. I strip the chair down to its bare bones, rub away all the make-up and sticky glitter. Then I begin, I pin the skeleton together, fleshing it out, building curves, marking corners, dressing it in colour and stitching it UP.
What is your favourite stage in the making process?
Do I have to chose one?
Stripping the chair of its old fabric and unearthing what lies beneath, this is where the chair tells you how to re-build it and how it was last upholstered gives you a sense of its history.
I love the physicality of re-springing. Tie-ing the springs to the seat, strapping it down reminds me of building a rib cage, it feels like the heart of the chair. This is the base, the fundamental structure that gives strength to the subsequent stages of the process.
The final stage is intimate. I give the final act my full, quiet attention, my hands sewing the final sheath of fabric onto the back, sealing it. It is a long sigh. A ‘goodbye’.
What was the best advice that you have ever been given?
‘Keep it simple’
This was (repeatedly) given to me by one of my first tutors in performance and still resonates with me. Simplicity is understated, it doesn't shout. It gives equal space for the materials to sing. With a chair it’s simple; design, wood and colour/pattern. They can co-exist harmoniously if you give each element space.
Where do you source your materials from?
I’ve found vintage textiles at flea markets, car boot sales and digging around in ramshackle warehouses bursting with vintage goodies. I do enjoy a good rummage. I prefer to source new textiles from small, independent companies who support the British wool industry, my personal favourites are Melin Tregwynt and Abraham Moon in Wales and the Scottish company, Bute. For cottons and linens I’m a glutton for bold prints and I try to purchase from small distributors who support textile designers like Miss Print and St Jude’s or buy directly from the designers themselves.
Tell us about the choice of furniture for your home.
My furniture is a ramshackle collection of pieces I’ve found or rescued. I have a huge ‘Bed Knobs and Broomsticks’ oak bed I found on free-cycle. I think it's handmade. The design is incredibly canny and user friendly. All its component parts slot together without any screws or bolts. It feels epic and solid and keeps me grounded while I sleep.
My customers imagine I have lots of beautifully upholstered chairs around my home. I have a few I’ve restored that I cannot bear to let go of. I have a large, low seated antique chair I found forgotten on the street that used to live in my artist studio. I started to strip it down with the intention of recovering it, however what lay beneath is the beautiful and detailed work of the previous upholsterer. How they shaped the curves around the back edge roll and front arm edges is very pleasing, the tacking neat and elegant. I can’t bring myself to cover it. I like to touch it when I pass by.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
Being at the top of a very steep hill in my roller-skates and zooming all the way down at breakneck speed without falling over or stopping. No-one witnessed my hill conquering.
"I give the final act my full, quiet attention, my hands sewing the final sheath of fabric onto the back, sealing it. It is a long sigh. A ‘goodbye’."
Where do you go for inspiration?
Dusty reclamation yards and antique shops, the smell of age is thrilling. I can’t help soaking up ideas and cheekily paying more attention to the furniture and textiles around artists’ homes when I wander around the arts trails dotted throughout the city.
What are your favourite places in Bristol?
I like to wander through the city without the intention of a particular destination. It’s an opportunity to notice things you would usually miss; architectural details, new additions like a road sign or graffiti, noticing unexpected behaviour and discovering streets with funny names like ‘there and back again’ lane.
What other disciplines are you interested in and/or involved with?
Dance, both doing the dancing and watching it. I’ve recently rediscovered my ability to write and it’s pouring out of me. I was a voracious reader but I’ve still not managed to read a whole book since my PhD. I am half way through Jeannette Winterson's ‘Why be Happy When you Could be Normal’ so that’s progress.
Dance and words are visceral, evocative and provocative. They help me feel present.
What does a typical day in your studio look like?
Usually I’m plugged into my earphones when I’m sanding wood, or re-stuffing a chair. It helps me get into a quiet zone with the piece of furniture - it's a visual and tactile process so I don’t need to hear the chair.
However, when I’m measuring a chair to build a pattern plan my focus shifts. Mapping out the pattern and converting 3-D measurements onto a 2-D pattern plan requires precision. I find this process terrifying, cutting into swathes of expensive fabric, bending it around corners and pattern matching. I’m a perfectionist and every tiny detail matters. I carefully map this out; measuring, planning, marking, re-measuring, check and triple checking before I get to the (bold) point of cutting into the fabric.
When a chair is finished I document it and then cover it. The final ‘act’ is when it is unveiled for the customer. The theatre of this moment tickles me.
What is your favourite dish?
That would have to be salad. Nothing can energise my taste buds like a collection of raw vegetables, scattered seeds, a home made hummus partnered with a zesty lemon dressing or a sharp, salty salsa-verde.
Where is one most likely to find you when you are not working in the studio?
Walking out in the woods, around the city's streets, sitting with a cocktail and a friend. Camping, singing into a starry night, a backgammon battle, second hand bookshops, sitting up in bed writing till 2 in the morning with my cat curled on my lap, dancing in inappropriate places.
Who would you like to collaborate with in the future?
This reminds me of the ‘if you could invite 5 people to dinner, who would you invite’ question. I’m choosing to assume it could be anyone, the impossible people.
My Impossibles would include: I can’t imagine what the outcome would look like but I’d have to include my idol, the German choreographer Pina Bausch. She was notorious for asking questions of her dancers to motivate them and guide her choreographic process, opposed to giving them direction. Her infamous quote ‘it is not how you move but what moves you’ sums up her approach succinctly. The installation artist Mike Nelson has an incredible capacity to manipulate space through design, what crazy designs we could dream up if we collaborated. And the artist Mona Hatoum, her work with materials is challenging and provocative. Perhaps we could build a chair from human hair.
The Possibles would include: The gregarious, bold and playful UK textile designers; Timorous Beasties, Sarah Parris and Howard Wakefield from ‘Colour and Form’, the place inspired designs of the Bristol textile designer Penny Seume and Louise Body - her ‘Erotica’ fabric, is so deliciously naughty.
I’d absolutely have to include the New York based textile artist and designer Richard Saja. I adore his ‘Historically Inaccurate’ series of hand embellished toiles that challenge and riff on traditional 18th Century, French provincial Toile de Jouy. His embroidery embraces ‘punk’, I love it.
What are your dreams and ambitions for A Peculiar Grace?
My aim has always been to collaborate with textile artists and chair designers/antique restorers to create unique pieces of furniture. To weave these three elements of design together to create a still place for the body to touch and be held in the world.
And my incredible dream would include working with interior designers, imagining new wild things for Abigail Ahern (her use of deep, rich colours is sumptuous) and Ilse Crawford, I like her philosophy, she ‘watches people to see how they inhabit a place’ and is ‘fascinated by how design can change behaviour.’ Her mission is to improve our relationship with our environment, her ‘Touch’ collection simply illustrates this.
On a playful note I’d relish the opportunity to design and create site-responsive pieces (the room, the building, the location) for boutique homes and hotels; Mount Pleasant Farm B&B in Chapel Allerton (check out their ‘copper pear’ bedroom and ensuite) and Canopy & Stars unique Bothy’s, tree houses and tabernacles (a portable sanctuary - that could be a sitting-tent or a chair-house!).
Can you recommend us:
A book: ‘Sexing The Cherry’ by Jeanette Winterson
A film: ‘Institute Bejamenta or This Dream People Call Human Life’ by the Brothers Quay
A song: ‘Killing me softly’ by The Fugees