A Visit to Trio Furniture
As designers of people’s homes, we are heavily reliant on excellent tradespeople. Most often we need electricians, plumbers, painters, tile layers, and finish carpenters. Many of these trades are subject to things like building permits and measurements to the nearest 64th of an inch. They are hard to coordinate and usually don’t get people super excited. Then there are the fun trades. I’d actually put finish carpentry in this category, but I think that might not be the consensus of the broader public. Fun trades are things like curtain makers, wallpapers, new furniture makers, maybe metal smiths, specialty stone layers, and upholsters. Of all these trades, I am most envious of the upholsterers. While I know their job involves skills far beyond my own, I think it would be liberating to work every day with materials that yield so willingly in the hands of an artist. Plaster cracks, wires fray, pipes burst, and wood shrinks and swells a lot. If a carpenter cuts his wood an eighth of an inch too short, it’s all over. If the upholsterer makes the same mistake with his or her material, I’ve always assumed he might only have to tug on it a little, and no one would ever be the wiser. To confirm my supposition, we recently visited Kristina Leonetti, co-owner of Trio Furniture in Southeast Portland and asked her some probing questions about the ins and outs of her business.
Before we get too far into the specifics of upholstery, I’d like to say a little bit about Kristina and her business partner Gina Leonetti. They’ve owned Trio since the 90’s. Gina’s father was an upholsterer from Italy who set up shop here in Portland, but Kristina recalls the business didn’t feel particularly real until they took over its operation. Since then, they have turned the place into a valuable resource for designers and consumers alike. They now carry tons of high-quality fabrics and trims that customers can touch and feel and check out of their showroom, which is generally fairly packed with incoming and outgoing projects. Their showroom also has windows into the workroom so guests can watch as projects are assembled. All this is great, but what’s exceptional is the way Gina, Kristina, and their entire staff treat everyone who walks through their door. They know their business well, and they are excited to share it with everyone they meet. One never senses he or she doesn’t belong in their space. Nor would they feel required to make a purchase or lock down a decision quickly. Not that it’s a slow-paced, lax environment.
Actually, all the employees and stakeholders are constantly buzzing around getting work done. But no one is ever too busy to stop and offer to help. In this regard, Trio is so unlike many other contemporary businesses where the pace of the information age seems ready to push employees to the brink of collapse. This is one of the easiest, most reliable operations with which we’ve had the pleasure of doing business. We asked Kristina for a tour of the workroom, and she immediately agreed. She had a question to ask us about our preference on one of the projects they were working on for us anyway. We exited the showroom through a door at the left and found ourselves in a big receiving room where stacks of tired looking ottomans, sofas, and chairs were waiting to be taken apart and given new life. Standing here, one might have the impression Trio’s entire business is in refurbishment and re-upholstery, but they’d be mistaken. Kristina says about 60% of their projects are brand new pieces they’re creating from scratch. That percentage fluctuates. A few years ago with money as tight as it was, they saw a lot more people hanging onto their old things. Now though, they find people are ambitious to try new things and take on larger projects. Trio does enjoy refurbishment projects, particularly when a client is excited to play a role in keeping a family heirloom alive for the next generation, but Kristina admits the big, new creative projects get her especially excited. She says there are some operations in town that shy away from projects that are outside of their routine, but these are the kind that makes her thrive.
We moved from the receiving room into space where furniture frames were being either built fresh or reassembled. There we met a workroom employee named Pete, whose list of practical skills put our own to shame. In the next room, we saw a glue bottle labeled “Pete.” This got me reminiscing about architecture school. I never had to label my glue bottle because it was so encrusted with dried residue that no one dared touch it. It occurred to me we were standing in a real studio. The joy of working in a studio is the collaborative experience which must come about to make projects come to life. If a studio is pumping out project after project, you can bet the people in its physical cones are playing together as a team.
There are probably eight or ten workstations in Trio’s studio. Near the first point of entry from the framing, room is the foam and all area, where newly finished frames received whatever cushy substance will make up the furniture’s interior. While a lot of what we saw in production during our visit was commercial work with foam ll, there was one antique chase whose interior was made up of webbing, and softer down ll, giving the piece an oppy, more forgiving look and feel. There was another area where a couple of men were stretching fabric, stations with industrial sewing machines and a few places where projects were nearing the finishing stages and workers were using tack hammers to complete the pieces. Finally, we left the workroom and found ourselves a place rather like the receiving room, only this time everything looked brand new and ready to head off to whatever place it would call home.
Kristina showed us one large sofa they had built knowing it was going to be a tight fit go into the site. It looked finished except some of the fabric was left hanging loosely at the bottom of the sofa back. She explained the arms would be removed from a site, and then reattached once the piece was in place. One of their guys would stitch up that fabric dangling at the back at the very end. “As long as you let us know the situation in advance,” Kristina said, “we will figure out a way to accommodate site conditions.” I’ve found this to be absolutely true of Trio. Occasionally, I’ll get a phone call and it will be Gina or Kristina on the line saying, “I’ve been thinking about your project and I know we talked about it this working this way, but I’m thinking it may look nicer and be more cost-efficient if we _____________;” you fill in the blank. They are always thinking about their customers’ projects and we consider ourselves incredibly lucky to have such a helpful resource on speed dial. And Kristina did admit my thinking is correct: if someone in the shop cuts something a little small, they can usually just throw the fabric on a stretcher and give it a tug until it fits. Usually. Give Trio a visit and get ready for a hug from Kristina; she’s quite generous with them.