Puffing new life into old furniture

Posted: Thursday, June 10, 2004

An oversized sofa chair covered in green and pink plaid fabric sits on a raised platform in The Poofy Puffin Upholstery Place. Ginger Wik recently re-covered the chair and is inspecting her handiwork.

She pokes and pulls at the bottom corners of the big pillow that cushions the inside back of the chair. The corners of the pillow aren't fully filled out with stuffing, so there's a small gap where the pillow, arms and seat cushion meet on each side at the back of the chair.

"I don't like that," Wik says. "We'll have to do something about that."

Wik is talking to herself. Her husband, Kaarlo, who helped lift the chair onto the low platform a moment earlier and is standing off to the side, watching.

The Poofy Puffin's storefront isn't fancy, but it is colorful. The industrial-looking, sheet metal-sided building that houses Wik's business is painted bright yellow to mimic the yellow of the bill of a horned puffin the squat, brightly colored seabird that roosts on Alaska shores and that the shop is named after.

The giant plaid chair is typical of the kind of furniture Wik has reupholstered many times in the five years she's operated out of her yellow building; however, the reason the chair was brought in to be re-covered was a bit unusual. The chair's owner, Cara Bauer, explained that she had to have the chair re-covered due to a failed experiment. She had painted the fabric covering the chair with house paint.

Bauer got the idea when a drop of paint landed on the fabric-covered cushion of a stool while she was repainting her kitchen. She loved her giant sofa chair, except for the color, so she figured she could paint it a color she liked. The problem developed when Bauer used latex house paint instead of fabric paint. When the paint dried, Bauer realized her mistake.

"Latex paint hardens crispy," she said.

The dry latex stiffened the fabric and made the chair uncomfortable to sit in. Given the results, Bauer felt silly painting her chair to change the color.

"Who paints their furniture with latex paint?" she asked.

However, she thought it was worth a try since she had a back-up plan.

"I think I had in the back of my mind: If it doesn't work, I'll take it to Ginger. She'll fix it," Bauer said.

Wik didn't just re-cover the chair with a different colored fabric, she made the chair look more casual by changing the way the chair was upholstered. Wik eliminated pleats and protective flaps in favor of a smooth look with simple beading at the seams.

"She changed the arms to look more country. It was kind of how would you say it more sophisticated looking, and I wanted it to look more comfortable," Bauer said.

Wik upholsters more than furniture. She re-covers fishing boat, snow machine, ATV and airplane seats that routinely get worn out by their owners' enthusiasm for the outdoors.

She also does commercial work, much of it for the city of Kenai. Wik outfits the backrests of the bucket seats of Kenai Police Department vehicles with an additional leather cover. The custom cover protects the underlying material from the wear and tear of side arms and other equipment officer's wear on their belts. The covers are attached with velcro, so they can easily be removed and replaced. Wik also has made tarps for city fire trucks to protect hoses and other equipment from the elements.

Wik has upholstered a lot of things, but prefers automobile interiors.

"My favorite thing is a whole old car," she said.

Marc Avigo recently had Wik redo the interior of his 1967 Chevelle SS (Super Sport). Avigo had Wik stick close to the material and stitching used originally on the seats, but took Wik's ideas for customizing the door panels and sun visors. Wik suggested using a felt material repeatedly emblazoned with "Chevy" for the panels and visors.

"She came up with the Chevy felt pattern that I was pretty impressed with," Avigo said.

Wik began flirting with upholstering things in high school. She was a good seamstress and one day, out of boredom, decided to re-cover the seat cushion of her mom's antique "gossip chair," which is a chair with a phone stand attached. Wik wanted to make the chair look more contemporary, but didn't tell her mother what she was doing.

"Mom came home to see her antique covered in neon checkers," Wik said. "That lasted about a week before she made me change it back."

Wik later apprenticed with Two Sisters, a shop run by Beverly and Sharon Rowe that sold used books, did taxes and had an upholstery shop in back. Wik credits the sisters with instilling in her a pursuit of perfection.

"Those were some picky ladies and they definitely taught me how to do it right the first time, because if you didn't, you did it until you got it right," she said.

Wik prides herself on her creative problem-solving skills when it comes to upholstery, but she nearly didn't apply those skills to naming her shop. She initially leaned toward a simple and safe name for the business, like Custom Upholstery. Her husband urged her to come up with something more unique. She suggested Puffin Upholstery, but her husband pointed out that the name might conjure up an unwanted image.

"(Puffin Upholstery) sounds like you're going to sit there all day long smoking and getting it in their furniture," Kaarlo Wik said.

The couple decided the solution was to add the word "poofy" to the name to both get rid of the smoking image and suggest upholstery stuffing.

Apparently, the name caught on maybe too well.

"At the bank, they call me 'Poofy.' They think that's my first name," Wik said.

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