One of the many charms of the Traditional Upholstery Workshop is its glorious location in south west Wales. For most people, it's quite a trek, albeit a worthwhile one. But when it comes to making a trek to join the course, few can top Paul Behen, who comes all the way from Chicago, USA.
Paul is a Special Education PE teacher, although his love of furniture and passion for upholstery is leading him gradually astray.
It was Paul's love of furniture that first caused him to cross paths with an upholsterer in his native USA. She, in turn, had been on our upholstery courses.
It seems so improbable, doesn't it? In a population of over 300 million, he bumped into someone who trained in a country that could fit into the USA 476 times over! Such is the reach of the Traditional Upholstery Workshop.
Inspired by what he heard about the Workshop, Paul decided to join one of our upholstery courses in the summer of 2009. His plan was to see whether he connected with upholstery. If not, at least it would be a good holiday in a beautiful part of the world.
How Paul came to upholstery
As it happened, Paul was smitten on the very first day. One of the first things he noticed was the stunning setting:
"The workshop is such a special place! It's a bit of a retreat every time I go there. It's tranquil. It's social. It enhances creativity. My blood pressure goes down whenever I step into the workshop"
He also loves the teaching:
"Liz has just an amazing wealth of knowledge - and has a very special way of teaching the material which is relaxed, nonjudgmental, patient".
She's a great home baker too, and Paul misses his afternoon sweet treats when he returns home to Chicago.
His time in the Workshop
When he's not putting in a productive day at the workbench, Paul makes the most of the Welsh countryside. Driving along winding roads, sunk deep between high hedgerows is a novelty. And he enjoys running along the coast and around the castle at Llansteffan.
Calories burned, he recommends dining at Y Polyn, a small pub and restaurant nearby. Their menu emphasises the quality of local ingredients - Welsh beef, salt-marsh lamb and rare breed pork - cooked simply and without pretension.
Home-from-home during his upholstery courses is Pleasant View, a small cottage on the opposite side of the valley to the workshop. He's full of praise for the 'warm, thoughtful and fun' owners, Tess and Ray. The cottage, he says, has everything anyone could ever need.
The art of upholstery is the natural consummation of Paul's love of furniture. It gives him a unique insight into every layer and every process that makes up a piece. And he loves being able to rebuild furniture from the bare frame upwards.
His only frustration is that every piece of furniture is so different:
"Just when you thought you had a handle on how to attack a piece, it presents its challenges!"
The craft of upholstery
His favourite project to date is a pair of solid office chairs. They had belonged to the father of a good friend, and had been in the father's office for years. Paul renovated them using traditional techniques and changed them for the better. The chairs have great sentimental value for his friend, and Paul has the satisfaction of knowing he made them even more special.
As a welcome visitor to these shores, Paul's taste in fabric could hardly be more diplomatic, taking in one English, one Scottish and one Welsh producer. His English favourite is Abraham Moon, the venerable Yorkshire woollen mill. The Welsh interest comes from Melin Tregwynt, a 17th century woollen mill on the Pembrokeshire coast. Finally, Scotland is represented by Wemyss, whose history goes back to the 19th century.
Favourite projects, favourite fabrics
As someone who has been learning and practicing the craft for the better part of a decade, Paul's advice for beginners thinking of taking our upholstery courses is invaluable:
"Don't do it because of romantic notions about the furniture. Take a couple of weeks, and if you still want to take it on - after realising how physical it is - then immerse yourself in it."
Apart from that, his only other advice is this:
"Enjoy every minute of it!"
Hear, hear, say we.
Advice for new students
Paul is happy to consider commissions, by appointment.
His website is coming soon!
How to get in touch with Paul
After so many years at the workbench, it was inevitable that Paul would start a business. As he says himself, he wanted to start selling the pieces he made, if only to help pay for the craft.
He called his business Industrial Cottage Handcrafted Furniture and Upholstery. It is based in Chicago, Illinois and specialises in creating unique pieces for resale. You can find out more about it, or commission him yourself, by visiting his Facebook page.
Looking to the future, Paul plans to continue his upholstery education. He's thinking of tackling an egg chair on his next visit.