In a warehouse space up in Preston, Patrick Navascues works away in a brightly lit studio full of long rolls of fabric, sewing machines, sharp tools, sofa springs and the bare bones of broken furniture. Navascues is a traditional upholsterer who was taught the old-fashioned way of resurrecting furniture using modern materials.
“I keep the traditional part going cause I see myself as a recycler,” he says as he shows me around his immaculate Preston workshop, which sits behind his showroom and houses walls of fabrics. “All this old furniture will be recycled instead of throwing it away,” he says, referring to the reproduced Danish sofas, Featherston seats and sets of dining chairs stored overhead in a lofty space at the top of a ladder. “I take good care of it and not stack it and damage it, because people are very particular. They are spending a lot of money, so everything has always got to be nice. The place is always clean, because people are not going to leave me their priceless antiques in a place that’s like the tip.”
Navascues Upholstery provides a specialty service for furniture restoration, from commercial work for restaurants, hotels and stage productions to priceless antiques and everyday furniture. Customers bring their furniture in on trailers, or request a home visit for a quote, select a fabric, then Navascues begins work on restoration; reupholstering and resurrecting the old furniture and making it feel new again. “If a chair comes in and is a little wobbly, we just knock it apart, rebuild it and reuse it. A lot of the work I do is antique pieces. I do a lot of period pieces and now I am doing more mid-century antiques – 1950s, 1960s style furniture.”
Of Spanish heritage (Navascues is the name of a town in Spain), he started working in the furniture industry as a boy of 15, “doing pouffes and little stools,” he recalls. After six months, he began an apprenticeship with a company in Richmond, before working for a few other larger furniture traders and eventually opening his own business in 1996.
Navascues worked by himself for nearly 15 years, but can now employ several staff. He has a craftsman who comes in two days a week and two mature age apprentices. “As far as young people, they are not interested,” Navascues laments. “The problem with upholstery as a trade is that it’s dying. Kids out of school…they drop out because people aren’t interested in working with their hands anymore.”
Though there has certainly been a move towards embracing artisan sensibilities over the last few years, industries like the furniture production can be as fast and fickle as the fashion industry. “Apprentices that work for factories only learn how to do a certain amount of styles of furniture of whatever the company makes, whereas here, I do everything from commercial work and priceless antiques to everyday furniture, so I get to see a lot.
“I also do work for theatre shows – for Annie at the moment – the production is coming back to Melbourne and I did all the upholstery for that show, I think 10 years ago, when it was here.”
Navascues has done a lot of work for the stage, having just finished working on set for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to Phantom of the Opera, Love Never Dies, as well as the Australian Ballet’s Romeo & Juliet. He has also reupholstered furniture and built seating for bars and restaurants around Melbourne including the impressive red banquettes at Naked for Satan and the bay window seating at Gerald’s Bar. But the majority of his clients are wealthy private customers.
Working with Navascues is not cheap, but you’re paying for quality that will last. If you come to Navascues with an old Chesterfield to repair and reupholster in leather, it may well cost you upwards of $2500. “But you’ve got to remember, this is a unique piece,” he reiterates. “You can buy a whole lounge suite for $2000. But then, in a couple of years that’s what you see on the side of the road everywhere – they’re designed not to last. They look nice in the shop and that’s about it. That is the sort of thing I’m fighting against, and it’s also in my favour now. People are realising it’s rubbish.”
We wander over to something Navascues is currently working on – a beautiful, beaten up old armchair from the late1920s. “It survived the war,” he says excitedly, rubbing a hand over its worn arm. “We’re just giving it new life, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t survive. People want this rustic look, and it might last you 80 years if you take care of it.”
This is the kind of thinking that Navascues appreciates. “It’s a mentality thing. There are people who can afford it, sure, they don’t even ask about the price. Then there are people who also have good taste. It’s like when you buy clothes or shoes,” he says.
“At the end of the day buying cheap is not worth it…you save a few dollars but then you’ll say ‘Patrick, these cushions are no good’. And I can’t afford that for my reputation.”
133 High Street, Preston
(03) 9484 8586