Before & After: Beautifying Beat-Up Flea Market Chairs

Before & After: Beautifying Beat-Up Flea Market Chairs

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Susan Kaplow
Jun 15, 2018
(Image credit: Susan Kaplow)

It's impossible to believe, but at one point, these chairs were like two perfect plums. We first discovered them in NYC's Chelsea Flea Market, one cold Sunday morning, in the early '90s when my husband (then boyfriend) and I were recovering from a live Jane's Addiction hangover. The flea market was a place you wandered through when you had nothing better to do and little energy to do it. We couldn't believe we discovered these Knoll knock-offs and that they could be ours for 200 bucks. They were groovy, urbane, and they epitomized who we wanted to be.

When we moved further downtown post 9/11, the chairs made the move with us, quickly becoming an indoor climbing gym for our new daughter, Evan. I can still see her plump toddler-legs dangling over the sides, sucking her thumb with her stuffed Lamb-y, watching Finding Nemo for the 75th time. But after three years of gripping the arms as Nemo tries to find his way back to his dad, she pulled at the fabric so much that both chairs' muslin lining began to pop out. By the end of her toddlerhood, our groovy, urbane chairs were exhausted and frumpy, just like her parents.

When we moved to Brooklyn in preparation for daughter number two, once again, the chairs came with. But this time, they went right into storage. With a new apartment and a second daughter on the way, spending several thousand dollars to reupholster two chairs we spent 200 dollars on was absolutely out of the question. But so was parting with them. And to tell you the truth, if we had any leftover creative energy at that point in our lives, it went toward themed sleepovers and inventive costumes, not furniture. So into the cellar they went, to live amongst shoe-sized roaches and High School Musical-themed Boogie Boards. They made one more move with us and never supported another tush for the next 13 years.

Then, last summer, Instagram helped rise them from the grave. I was idly scrolling through my feed one August Saturday afternoon when I saw the most magnificent chair that made my thumb freeze and my heart explode. The juxtaposition of the navy African Dutch Wax fabric against the dark painted French Bergère loveseat, just slayed me. (The price slayed me too but I was already a goner). I clicked on the account's bio and found out that not only was Enitan Vintage located in Brooklyn, but they were five minutes away. I sent them a DM and by noon the next day, we had an appointment.

After some Googling I learned that that Enitan Vintage is owned by Gbenga Akinnagbe, the actor who played Chris Parlow on The Wire and more recently, pimp Larry Brown on The Deuce. Despite Gbenga transforming into complicated characters on acclaimed television shows, I learned that we had some stuff in common: He's from Maryland (same), is a huge Prince fan (who isn't, but I have more pictures of Prince saved on my phone than of my own children) and we both have feelings about African fabrics (I can't part with a torn African mini skirt that I bought in the East Village in the early '90s). I knew that Gbenga and his team were the ones to make our once perfect plums sweet again.

I got to hang out with Gbenga one evening after my chairs were completed a few months ago. "Lots of times, I go on excavations [for fabric and furniture] when I'm shooting," he told me. "Like, I was in New Mexico shooting Independence Day: Resurgence a couple of years ago and I just went crazy [buying stuff]. I was in Oklahoma about a year or so ago and there are so many small, beautiful towns in the heartland where you find a lot of treasures. "

(Image credit: Susan Kaplow)

Gbenga hand-picked the fabric for my chairs from his vast textile collection, which is mostly comprised of fabrics that "speak to my Nigerian lineage, my ancestry and actually, everyone's ancestry," says Gbenga. The plum fabric he selected for one chair is a nod to the original color. The blue and green fabric for the other chair—together with the plum and gold—reincarnated our chairs back to groovy and urbane, but this time around, they're worldly, a little glam, stone-cold funky (and still reflecting our aspirations).

Of the chair from his collection that brought us together (that he named Nothing Compares to U), he said: "I've always been a fan of old pieces, not just furniture, just things that come from a different era, that were built differently. I found this beautiful chair that was actually in a basement in Brooklyn when I was looking to buy a home. I started looking at all types of upholstery and fabrics. Nothing that I saw that was usually used was attractive to me. It wasn't until a year after I found that chair that I found the fabric [in South Africa] and was attracted enough to it to use it."

In homage to Enitan Vintage and Gbenga—and of course to Prince—I've named my reupholstered chairs Raspberry Beret and Darling Nikki. They sit in our living room and remind my husband and me of how far we've come together. "To me that's what it's all about, when people entrust me and I forget that it's a business," says Gbenga. "To the person who's handing over their furniture, it's more important than the money. If you're holding on to a piece of furniture, for however long, it's for a reason. It's memories, and stories, and all kind of things."

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