An Interview with Jack White

“Jack White’s experience with upholstery–from his apprenticeship with Brian Muldoon to his ultimately unsuccessful venture into the trade as an independent–provides a compelling and didactic look into a young person’s encounters with the realms of business, art, and furniture in the Midwest in the 1980s.

Furniture has been a source of comfort for thousands of years, and upholsterers were among the artisans who guided us out of the Dark Ages, alongside blacksmiths, tailors, and cobblers.

Even though the trade was starting to decline at this time, there were still some active practitioners driving their brightly-colored vans around suburban Detroit and connecting to the textures of the era”. — Tobias of the Apple

Conversing about upholstery is one of the most beneficial activities we can do.

During his teenage years, JACK WHITE held various positions in upholstery shops. Eventually, he owned and ran his own business, entitled “Third Man Upholstery”.

Did you receive instruction on that particular skill by way of an apprenticeship?

JW mentioned that he had been learning the trade in Detroit under the tutelage of Brian Muldoon for a few years before he moved to the suburbs and started working at Beaupre Studios. Afterwards, he tried his hand at a few other smaller places before setting up his own studio.

He was also creating sculptures in the same workspace but had little interest in the commercial aspect of his work. Instead of feeling motivated by the money that he earned, he brushed it off as just being a means to pay bills.

This lack of enthusiasm towards the financial side of things eventually impacted his business attitude.

BLVR: What type of materials did you use? Could it be metal or wood?

At first, JW wanted to focus on the more intricate mid-century modern pieces like those of Noel and Herman Miller, but they were not skilled enough to tackle them.

Moreover, they wanted to avoid competition with their mentor in Detroit, so they settled for doing antique furniture instead.

This type of upholstery was expensive, and the clientele tended to be older people who could afford such services.

BLVR posed the question, inquiring if the cost was exorbitant.

At first, JW had the idea of providing his friends with interesting furniture that he had found at the Salvation Army, but he realized he couldn’t afford it.

BLVR: What is the reason behind the high cost?

JW said that if someone wanted to re-upholster a couch, it would be an expensive undertaking. Twelve yards of fabric at $10 a yard would be $120, and then 35-40 hours of work at $10 an hour would total up to around $560.

When taking into account the padding and cushion, it would be impossible to do it for less than $1000.

BLVR had to be certain that the piece had a substantial value.

JW pointed out that if one had just obtained a couch from the Salvation Army for a mere fifty dollars, it would be unlikely for that person to invest a thousand dollars to re-upholster it – unless of course, they were wealthy enough to do so.

BLVR asked if re-upholstering a piece of furniture, such as an authentic Herman Miller, would affect its value.

JW asserted that if a piece of furniture is original and gets re-upholstered, its value is retained and it is worth more than a modern reproduction of the same chair.

In the past, newlyweds often inherited furniture from their parents, and the mattress was re-upholstered to last for many years.

People invested a lot of money into it, but never got rid of it. Nowadays, there is a more disposable method of acquiring furniture.

Stores like Art Van offer couches for a cheaper price, but they are replaced after a few years.

This approach has had a negative effect on the upholstery trade, and it has become a luxury for the wealthy.

BLVR: Has the nature of the exchange changed from what it was before?

JW commented that upholstery is becoming a vanishing trade.

Unlike electricians and plumbers who can find work in every house on the street, those in upholstery, especially in Detroit, must secure their clients from the suburbs.

This is because people no longer need their furniture reupholstered like they once did; instead, they opt to buy new, cheaper items.

What is the opinion of BLVR regarding Ikea?

JW exclaimed that it was really cool, noting how it was providing more affordable style options.

He mentioned that for the past four decades, many shops had overlooked this factor, but then suddenly places such as Target began producing it.

He reasoned that, even when there is not much money, one can still get something cool.

BLVR: Was it difficult for you to begin the venture alone?

JW reported that he had not struggled for work when he began his career.

He found himself in a warehouse full of artists, and as soon as he began, they provided him with jobs. As the news spread, he was continuously employed.

He carried out a variety of tasks, including a psychiatric couch and chair for a psychiatrist.

BLVR: That has logic, the pairing.

JW remarked that things escalated quickly without any help from advertising. He compared it to an old adage, noting that if something was desirable, people would come to it, which was what happened in his case.

BLVR: Would customers bring their sofas to you, or would you have to go and collect them?

JW reminisced about his unique style back when he was running his furniture shop. He had a bright yellow van, sported yellow and black clothing, and all his tools were just the three colors: yellow, white, and black.

The cartoonish look he had going on made some potential customers doubt his expertise.

BLVR: No one believed that you were serious about the situation.

JW shared that they attempted to make a creative form of billing people for their services. This included writing the bill in crayon on a piece of paper or having a yellow piece of paper with black marker detailing the amount.

Most people didn’t react positively to the idea. As a result, JW began writing poems and messages inside the furniture they re-upholstered. They thought it would be nice if people wrote each other messages in this way.

BLVR: It’s akin to sending mail with art.

JW revealed that Brian Muldoon, who he had been under the tutelage of, was a major contributor to the mail art movement in the 1970s.

BLVR: At what age did you begin your work in furniture upholstery?

At the age of fifteen, JW began to apprentice and was the proprietor of his own store by the age of twenty-one.

BLVR: It certainly was a peculiar sight. Someone so youthful, and with the combination of three colors…

JW: I believe it was. My business cards were a mix of yellow, black and white. They each had a tack with red paint, resembling blood, on them and my slogan right underneath it saying, “Your Furniture’s Not Dead.”

BLVR: [Chortling] Oh, dear.

JW: The response to the card was not well received. The mentor I used to work with was not impressed and asked me if I wanted to attract any customers. [Laughter].

BLVR: Could you describe the van you had?

JW: I was able to purchase a yellow Ford van from a used car place for $1200, with help from a loan.

This vehicle ended up being a great asset to me, since I already had yellow and black hand tools and power tools.

My brother and I then constructed a fabric table, similar to one I had seen at an upholstery shop I used to work at. It featured Styrofoam beneath the cloth and allowed for fabric to be pinned down directly to the table for accurate measurements.

The table was huge and impressive, and was finished with yellow and black colors. When the shop closed, all of the tools and furniture ended up in my basement, including this beautiful fabric table.

Do you find any pleasure in upholstery nowadays?

JW responded with a laugh that it was not fun at all and it was a difficult job. He mentioned that he had spoken to other upholsterers and asked how long it would take him to become fully proficient and make more money from it.

According to them, it would take him eight to ten years to be able to do it with ease. He was taken aback at the amount of time it would take and said “Ah, man, I just can’t do it.”

BLVR: Every item of furniture presented distinct difficulties.

JW: I had apprenticed for a few years, but I wasn’t able to learn the more intricate parts of the trade due to time constraints.

So, when I decided to open my own shop, I was very inexperienced with certain problems. I would find myself having to dismantle furniture and not know what type of springs to put in the piece or even how to put them in.

Then, I would have to call Brian Muldoon for help and there were a few times he even came over to get me out of a jam. It was a real stressful situation, especially since I was only twenty-one and working alone in a warehouse with a couch needing to be completed by next week. [Laughs]

The art of bluffing is key; one must make it seem as if they are aware of what they are doing.

JW recounted a few occasions when he reupholstered a chair and charged the customer $600, only to deliver it and realize he had used the wrong amount of foam, making it too hard to sit on.

He had to come up with an explanation, telling the customer that the foam needed time to settle, although he himself was unsure of what to do.

He noted that these kinds of situations happened quite often.

Have you ever tried your hand at taxidermy?

JW confirmed that he has a sizable collection of taxidermy items in his residence.

BLVR: Are all of these items antique?

JW: A lot of my wall decorations are animals. On my wall I have a zebra head, two gazelles, an eland, a kudu, and a large white elk.

BLVR inquired, “What about a dik-dik?”

JW: What just happened? Could you say that again?

Do you possess a dik-dik? It’s a type of small antelope located in East Africa. Did you have any experience doing taxidermy?

JW: At one point, I thought it would be beneficial to expand upon my skillset and learn more about the upholstery trade.

I reached out to several places in Detroit that specialized in coffin upholstery, but they wouldn’t hire me.

Even though I provided proof that I had a good amount of experience, they were sceptical as to why I wanted to work on coffins.

I was keen to learn the specific techniques used in tufting and working with silk that aren’t typically used in regular upholstery, yet they were not willing to give me the opportunity.

They told me that much of the work was pre-fabricated and that I wouldn’t want to work there.

BLVR: There is not a considerable amount of re-upholstering happening there.

JW: [ In a fit of laughter ] Absolutely not! It honestly never crossed my mind.

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