Breathing new life into that favorite chair
Groton — Jonathan Holland lost his grandfather decades ago but still recalls the advice he imparted.
“He was the biggest influence in my life and he told me, ‘If you work with your hands you will never go broke.’ And I was not a book scholar, and I liked to work with my hands, and he was right,” Holland said.
Holland, the owner of K&J Upholstery in the City of Groton, has been working with furniture for 40 years, 30 years as his own boss. He got his start directly out of Norwich Free Academy four decades ago when he landed an entry-level position at the former Helikon Furniture Co. in Taftville.
His first job was to put cambric, a lightweight, closely woven fabric, on the bottom of chairs to serve as a dust deck, and he took the work seriously.
“I was green, I didn’t know anything, but Helikon was very high-end, and they trained me,” said Holland, 57. “They taught me things like when you staple, it’s a straight line. They were perfectionists and I worked my way up in stages.”
As Holland’s skills improved, he was coached in the art of upholstering.
“It’s a trade, a skill. It’s not something you learn overnight,” he said. “You have to have patience and you have to want to do it.”
In 1986, when elite furniture-maker company Herman Millar bought out Helikon, Holland stayed on and was trained to make the stylish Eames Lounge Chair, still a classic today and popularized by the television sit-com “Frasier.” Martin Crane, the father in the long-running show, spent considerable time in his Eames chair.
Holland would stay about a decade at the Taftville factory working his way into a management position. But, when he saw furniture that he had made on display at an elite trade show in New York City, he decided it was time to set out on his own.
Initially, he opened an upholstery shop with a partner in Norwich and, less than two years later, they expanded to buy the existing K&J Upholstery in Groton. K&J had been in business about 20 years when they bought it in 1990, and Holland and his partner continued to serve its faithful customers. But a few years later, the partner left and Holland, a Groton resident, became the sole proprietor, giving up the business in Norwich and focusing solely on the Groton location.
Since acquiring K&J — he never changed the original name — the shop has had three different locations. For the past 12 years it’s been next door to the popular Ortega’s eatery on North Street, a short walk from Washington Park and the Groton Monument.
The final move was intended to downsize the business, moving from about 2,800 square feet on Thames Street to the current 800-square-foot location. But despite his best intentions, Holland has never cut back and, with a staff of three, continues to do work for commercial, residential and marine customers. They’ve just adjusted to a much smaller work space.
“We’re the busiest, smallest upholstery shop you know,” he said, surveying the bolts of material, pneumatic staple guns, and disassembled chairs and ottomans in his shop.
Every piece of furniture is taken apart “down to its skeleton,” said Holland, including removing the fabric, stuffing, and sometimes even the springs, before it is put back to together again.
“I like the idea of making something that looks nice. I like making something pretty again,” he said.
Customers have to decide when to upholster and when to buy a new piece of furniture. “We are not a cheaper alternative, and if someone thinks that, they are going to come here and have sticker shock,” he said.
Pricing is different depending on the fabric and the furniture, but upholstery costs about the same as buying new, Holland said. Sometimes, a piece will have sentimental value or be just the right size or shape, and it’s worth it for an owner to keep and upholster it.
At K&J, they do work for restaurants, the ferries, marinas and residential customers. They’ll do banquet booths, boat cushions and indoor or outdoor furniture for commercial or individual customers. The most unusual thing he’s done, Holland said, is covering a piece of furniture in a cow hide that still had hair on it.
Once K&J accepts a job, the turnaround time is about three weeks depending on what else is in the shop. Typically, Holland and his staff have six to eight jobs underway at the same time, so there’s always an array of chairs and cushions in various stages of dress or undress.
“Anything can be brought back if someone wants to save it,” Holland said. “You can put in new springs, webbing, foam and fabric.”
Business: K&J Upholstery
Owner: Jonathan Holland
Address: 112 North St., Groton
Phone: (860) 445-7060