Sarah Bonallo – Chair Genius

Chairs by Sarah Bonallo

Sarah Bonallo had spent more than 25 years studying and practicing law and was a respected solicitor and a mother of three, but now her business is restoring antique chairs with clever use of upholstery techniques to make each one a work of art.

”Originally I was thinking about opening an antiques shop” she says “but one of the first things I thought I should do was take a course in upholstery and as soon as I started it just sort of clicked.”

In revisiting her old favourite hobbies like sewing and theatrical costume making, Sarah had found the perfect outlet for the talent she’d been neglecting. After a year-long intensive course to become fully proficient with the traditional techniques and materials used by generations of craftsmen upholsterers, Sarah began to find the confidence and inspiration to turn old furniture into contemporary sculptural pieces.

Although she takes her materials and workmanship very seriously, stitching by hand and using only animal-hair stuffing, the finished results can be a lot of fun. In Sarah’s hands, chairs and sofas come to life, taking on their own character, like the satin and crystal “Diamond Lil” chaise longue or the studded vinyl “Seat Vicious”, and each piece makes the viewer smile as well as think about their attitudes to everyday objects and the differences between new and old.

“I try not to anthropomorphise them too much, but working on the chairs does feel very much like ‘dressing’ them,” smiles Sarah.

Furniture built to fit the human body does suggest the human form, and it was this that led to Sarah working with the Boudica Exhibition in 2007.  Her Mae West and Moulin Rouge chairs fit perfectly into the exhibition’s subject matter of breast reconstruction and artist Michelle Payne’s body casts of women who’ve completed the procedure.  With the Mae West chair “the shape shouted out that that’s what it was”, its curves and good looks reminding her of breasts and body parts. This was the project that made her realise that creating sculptural furniture could become a full time job. 

To Sarah, it’s often obvious what a chair “wants” to become, and that’s as much testament to her skill in sourcing the right furniture as to her imagination. Treasure-hunting in flea markets and junk shops had always been a compulsive hobby, and it also helped shape her respect for traditional construction methods and the craftspeople who originally created the furniture she transforms. So although she looks on some of her work as “an object you would place in a space to look at, like a sculpture”, her solid and time-tested upholstery techniques mean that much of it is perfectly usable as furniture, depending on the design and the fragility of the materials used. 

Looking at the works which are in turn delicate, frivolous, funny and thought-provoking, it’s hard to see an immediate link to her previous life in law, but Sarah believes it was almost inevitable that she would eventually come full circle back to her early passions.  Her strongest talent at school was for languages “and in those days, if you were creative and clever enough, you were encouraged into disciplines like law. Art was for people who could perfectly reproduce a bunch of flowers, and though I can sketch a chair, I’ve never been especially good at drawing”. Though she enjoyed her international law career and was highly successful, juggling meetings and school pick-ups was becoming increasingly stressful.  

Now she finds that her home workshop allows her to fit into the rhythm of family life in a way she could never do while working for someone else, and she’s led by her own vision – often finding that a chair or ottoman or chaise longue immediately suggests to her what it could become, or spotting a fabric that sparks an idea she then has to find the right chair for.

“When I see something and have the idea” she says “I can usually see how it will look when I’ve finished it”.

It sounds like the fusion of art and furniture is something Sarah Bonallo was always meant to invent.

If you would like some more information on the Sarah’s business then visit her site at www.sarahbonallo.com

Cindy George