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  • Sacrilege, Jeremy Deller, at the Open East Festival in London, 2013. Photo: NEAL LILLIS

Props and polyprops

Upholstery artist Jude Dennis talks to Crafts magazine 

When did your relationship with upholstery begin?

I’ve not always been an upholsterer. I started off as a prop maker and I worked in set building. 

OK, so what did you train in initially?

I did a crafts degree at Manchester Metropolitan University and I majored in textiles and metal. But I’ve always made textiles, I’ve always sewn. My grandmother was a seamstress. Even when I was messing around as a kid, that’s what I did. I chose textiles because it kind of covers everything. It can be metal, it can be wood, it can be paper. It’s not just fabric. When I was at uni I did printed textiles, but it didn’t really feel right. I was always making things, which is why I got into props.  

What were you interested in when you were a student?

A lot of stuff I was looking at was quite feminist – the role of women and the way adverts manipulate gender. I was quite inspired by 1950s’ graphics and food magazines from that era, too. 

Why did you shift from props to upholstery?

The upholstery happened because when I moved to London I started working in events for really wealthy people. And as much fun as that was, it became really uncomfortable to see that much money being spent on one night and then everything just being thrown away. I was making a lot of furniture and I just thought I should go and find out how to do that properly. So I decided to go to The Cass. When I started the upholstery course it wasn’t to be an upholsterer. It was just as an extra thing to maybe make my prop-making jobs a bit more interesting. I thought maybe I’d get better jobs. But then I opened up a kitchen seat pad on my first day and it was full of hair and string – I was hooked.  

Did your background give you a different insight?

I don’t feel constrained by materials or by the rules. Coming from a craft background everyone is constantly playing. That said, for the first couple of years I did conventional upholstery, but I realised it wasn’t making me happy. I wanted to be more in control of my own creativity. I need to have a concept. This is the way I communicate my ideas. 

What influences your work? 

My work is based around the craft of upholstery. I try to constrain myself to using either its techniques or the materials, although obviously the way that I display them isn’t traditional. My work is about making the skills of an upholsterer more visible. If you showed my work to an upholsterer they will know what the stitches are, although it’s not a traditional-looking chair. This isn’t a heritage craft for me, this is alive and it’s going forwards. 

Do you look at other upholsterers?

Obviously Hannah Stanton. We’re co-curating a show at the Geffrye Museum entitled Second Sitters, a platform for upholsterers with a more creative side.When I met Hannah I realised she was someone who I could work with really well, and we’d complement each other. The things we make are totally different, but we both respect each other and share the same vision. I’m really impressed with most upholsterers who are giving it a go. 

(L) Anton Alvarez’s thread-wrapped furniture. Photo: GUSTAV ALMESTAL (R) Pedestal base and stacking base, Robin Day, Hille, 1964. Photo: ROBIN & LUCIENNE DAY FOUNDATION

And what about from outside the upholstery world? 

I’ve been influenced by people like Jeremy Deller and the way he builds these communities. His inflatable Stonehenge was just a work of genius. Being from Sheffield is also a huge influence on me, because you can’t grow up in the city in the 1980s and not come out slightly politicised about the things around you. I admire the silversmith David Clarke, how he disrupts everyday objects. I really liked Anton Alvarez’s Thread Wrapping Machine. I love the way the outcomes are dictated by the process. Obviously I work a lot with Robin Day stuff, but with a kind of an irreverent reverence. 

Ah yes, how did that start?

There was a pile of polyprops outside the back of the workshop, kind of ignored. You can just mess around with them, drill holes and stuff. If it doesn’t work then it doesn’t really matter. People really like them, and it’s quite fun to play around with people’s expectations. 

Second Sitters is at the Geffrye Museum, London, 2-21 May.