“Upholstery CSI”: Preserving Antique Furniture at Colonial Williamsburg

Colonial Williamsburg is all about dressing for the 18th century, with perfect period details, right down to the chairs.

Meet Leroy Graves, the remarkable man who for more than three decades curated Colonial Williamsburg’s famous 18th-century furniture collection beautifully and properly dressed, and along the way revolutionized the way museums preserve and protect upholstered antiques.

Teichner asked, “Can you look at a piece of furniture and say, ‘It’s a fake’?

“Yeah,” he replied.

False, as if to make it look old and precious, when it really isn’t.

To be an upholstery restorer, Graves must also be a detective. A current exhibition of his work is actually called “CSI Furnishings.”

What is the crime? Serious bodily injuries perpetrated on fragile and historic parts by nails and tacks. “Unfortunately, they used all these big nails,” he said.

Furniture restorer Leroy Graves with correspondent Martha Teichner.

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“So every time someone stuffs it, it gets more intrusive and more damaging?” “

“Right. I said, ‘Well, why not come up with a system that doesn’t use nails at all?'”

What was known as the “Graves Method” is now used around the world.

He used trial and error with different materials, sometimes in combination – copper, plexiglass, plywood, plastic. He uses anything and everything to create a sort of rigid exoskeleton for each chair or sofa, to which he adds removable padding.

Removable upholstery by Leroy Graves for an antique chair.

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But to see, we will never know. Even the White House called him to do his magic.

Leroy Graves has won prestigious awards. Colonial Williamsburg has published an illustrated study of his work.

But you’ve only heard half of its story.

When he was six and a half, he went to work in the tobacco fields all year round. School was not an option; his parents were sharecroppers in rural southern Virginia. The small house he shared with eight members of his family (including his grandparents and two aunts and uncles) had electricity but no running water. It is now someone’s hunting hut.

At the age of 10, Graves moved to Williamsburg to live with his mother who worked multiple times to send money to the family. He was registered in fifth. He didn’t even have a freshman education at the time. He struggled and finally gave up. “And that’s when I came back to the country and lived here,” Graves said. And that was the end of his schooling.

The fact that he has managed to overcome extreme poverty and a virtually non-existent education to become an internationally renowned upholstery restorer is just as extraordinary as his accomplishments in his field – and makes them even more impressive.

Colonial Williamsburg furniture restorer Leroy Graves.

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“I wanted to carry a briefcase and wear a tie and a suit and do all that, but I knew it was so far from where I was, that it was just a dream,” he said. declared.

Graves went to work in maintenance at Colonial Williamsburg, supposedly filling for two weeks. That was 51 years ago. He never left, moving on to managing art. He then insinuated himself into the conservation of furniture.

He can create a perfect replica of any of these pieces. He spent his lunch hours watching great upholstery restorers fly in from New York City and taught himself how to do what they did, only better.

It was not lost on Leroy Graves that 18th century American furniture was often made by slaves whose names are unknown today.

“Whatever I do and whatever I do, I sign it, I date it,” he said. “I just want an individual to look at my work and see the quality, and the quality that comes from an African American. That’s what makes me proud.”


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Story produced by Amy Wall.

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