Design techniques for interior fabrication

Published On: March 1, 2013Categories: How-To Articles, Interiors & Upholstery


In our last article (Jan/Feb 2013 issue), we tackled cushion patterning. This story focuses on the design side of what Trevor and I do at Kennedy Custom Upholstery. There will always be those extremely straightforward jobs where plain white vinyl or gray canvas is the only choice. But for more complex jobs an informed design sense is a huge help.

Customers expect fabricators to be able to guide them through the fabric selection process, making this a crucial sales skill. At this point you are trying to find a fabric or image that dovetails with the customer’s vision for their project. Once the customer feels comfortable that you understand them, the project naturally moves forward as they trust that your shop can deliver the goods.

From idea to fabric

The v-berth cushions that we patterned in the last article were the jumping off point for a mini makeover of a 19-foot Menger Cat sailboat. The boat owners wanted the cabin to have a bright nautical feel because they thought the current burgundy cushions were bland and made the interior too dark.



Without a firm fabric suggestion, all I have to go on is an idea: “bright and nautical.” Although I know they want a complete departure from the current look. Suffice it to say, I’m not using burgundy anywhere in the revamped cabin.

So lighter, brighter, nautical? I can work with that. First, I like to build a palette off one fabric that sets the tone for the whole project. For this particular job it was a tight stripe of white and indigo. The long vertical lines create the illusion of a bigger space; the white brightens, and the blue sets the nautical theme. Another benefit of working with a stripe on a cushion is that it gives you the opportunity to add bias cut welt for extra visual interest.

After establishing a solid foundation for the project, it is time to add more fabrics to reinforce the design concept. In this case, the customer really wanted to push the nautical theme so we worked with a primary palette of blue, red and yellow. From there, I choose some nautical patterns of different scales and mixed up the pillow sizes. Finally, to keep things from getting too busy, I used a solid fabric for the center pillow.

When mixing patterns, there is one thing to keep in mind above all: vary the scale. The big repeat of the rope design on the yellow pillow mixes well with the smaller signal flag pattern. Also, I let the design motifs dictate the overall shape and size of the pillows. The scale and centering of the knot on the rope pillow lends itself to the 18-inch-by-18-inch square, whereas the square signal flags look best on an elongated 12-inch-by-24-inch rectangular form. As the most vibrant color in the group, the single red pillow really pops when used sparingly and placed in the center.

Given the current trend toward primarily neutral yacht interiors, this scheme may seem a little bold for some, but for the boat’s owners it was a home run. The overhauled cabin sets a cheerful mood for day sails and picnics with all three generations of the customers’ family.

The importance of documentation

So now that the job is done, all you can do is hope that your customer tells their friends how much they love your work, right? Not even close. It is absolutely crucial to document your work and do it well. Sometimes that means going back to a boat because the day you installed everything it was cloudy and your pictures suffered, but it always means having a high-resolution camera on hand. Quality advertisements and portfolio pages cannot be made from pictures taken with a cellphone. As one of my toughest design professors would say, if you are not excited about documenting a particular project that means that you are not proud of your work—a message no one wants to send.

For me, the photo shoot after a project is the victory lap. It’s time to sit back and appreciate how everything came together, especially if there were challenges along the way. If I can, I like to stage the shoot with a few well-chosen props to help capture the essence of a project, but it all just comes down to creating an archive of your work.

I have found that there is no better sales aid than a beautiful portfolio that conveys the detail and process of a successful project. Your portfolio is a great place to start the conversation with future customers and show the scope of work of which you are capable.

Rebecca and Trevor Kennedy own Kennedy Custom Upholstery in Ocean City, N.J.