Slipcovers Can Make The Holiday Table

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As a spotlighted designer in the most recent issue of House Beautiful, I was a lucky guest at the New York townhouse of Charlotte Moss, who was celebrating the current November issue and those featured in it.As generously hospitable and beautiful as both Charlotte and her home are, one notices instantly that while traditional with spectacular antiques, her home remains fresh, inviting and ultimately comfortable. Comfort—a mantra I tout as a cardinal rule—was much in evidence in the inviting upholstery and available table space everywhere.

Comfort is in the beholder’s eye. And despite Charlotte’s many antique chairs, which could appear stiff and unapproachable to many, she had cleverly relaxed them with couturier slipcovers. She exercised the dressmaker’s prerogative by softening the stiff lines, covering and softening the hard seat, yet guaranteed that the viewer would still enjoy the svelte carving on the chair’s legs and the back’s patinated wood through peek-a-boo cutouts. The slipcovers were executed in a simple linen that played ingénue foil to the sumptuous fabrics and trims on the other furniture.

As the holiday season is upon us, and we enjoy transforming our homes and furnishings, slipcovers are a marvelous decorative weapon in one’s design arsenal; especially in the dining room, where our holidays focus their gastronomical target. Dining rooms tend toward the stiffest feel of the house, given the plethora of chair legs and table legs.

By their nature, dining chairs are simply not plush. It is difficult to lounge and eat, unless you are a Roman goddess used to draping about and being fed grapes by a Nubian. Slipcovers can relax these chairs and add a festive quality.

In addition, the holidays bring in the relatives and lively children—over whom you don’t want to lord the usual rules of nuclear family hygiene. As you won’t want to ruin both their holiday and your holiday, slipcovers also allow for swift removal to the washing machine or dry cleaners.

John Fowler, England’s revered decorator and partner in the storied firm Colefax and Fowler, always recommended that slipcovers have a loose look, “as if your great Aunt Tillie had made them,” he’d say. He enjoyed them with ruffles and ties sewn in casual checks and tea-stained chintzes.

I prefer mine to be well fitted, as a well fitted slipcover disguises the details, yet emphasizes the shape. This requires prewashing the fabric, as it will shrink.

Slipcovers are by nature intended to be laundered. Take it from me, avoid the disheartening Lucy/Ricky tug-of-war that can ensue and prewash the fabric before it is cut and sewn. I hanker after the well fitted slipcover because I generally love the shape of most chairs I sell or family heirlooms I recommend that my clients hold on to.

For clients who want a more contemporary, relaxed feel to their home, but do not want to give up their treasured antiques, a slipcover in a plain or modern fabric disguises the filigree, inlay and dark mahogany while simplifying the overall appearance. A slipcover over a traditional Windsor chair would amaze you at how modern this 17th-century shape actually is.

For a dining room with stiff ladder-back chairs, I soften the effect with a shortened pullover that I call a “chair cozy.” It simply graces the top third of the chair, offering a comfortable support for the head as one leans back.

Once, when I was having a party, I hand-stenciled them with the names of my frequent guests and relatives, thereby also functioning as my place cards. Now I can rotate and rearrange the seating as frequently as family personalities ebb and flow (you know what I mean!).

These slipcovers don’t always have to dress down the environment, by the way. As the holidays demand an exercise in panache, and sometimes excess, your inner fashionista can resurface in glamorous fabrics, trims and outré colors.

As slipcovers require little fabric, a chair seat can require as minimal as one yard. You can trim its borders in silver tape trim, a crystal fringe, or stencil a festive emblem on the seat and you are ready to party.

I recently purchased a set of inexpensive wicker woven chairs, on top of which I am doing a slipcover cozy. As the linen fabric I selected is pricey, I had my upholsterer pin together a mock-up in scrap fabric so that I could see how it looks. This saves fabric and time and even helps me to visualize additional design opportunities.

I discovered that the back of the cozy swelled out because of the slope of the chair. I actually liked the effect and will be emphasizing it even further with an inverted center pleat, almost creating a back reminiscent of the 18th-century lady’s train in Watteau’s landscapes.

Slipcovers can be both functional and fun. For a client, I purchased towels that I had monogrammed and sewn into washable slipcovers for their pool house. The result was simply chic.

Slipcovers allow for dressmaker details other than zippers and Velcro. The attachments can be executed in flattering bows or decorator’s cords.

I once used this opportunity to showcase a client’s collection of buttons. The frogs, once popular on Chanel suits and Chinese garments are a flexible, highly stylish alternative to zipping up the slipcover.

As the holidays approach and the traditional turkey setup seems a bit staid and underdressed, a new set of slipcovers—executed by any one of our talented East End upholstery shops or tailors—may be just the trick to lend a distinctive flair to your dining experience.

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