As a general upholstery shop that also does marine work rather than a marine canvas specialist, Trevor and I are constantly asked to do all types of jobs, which can be nice for handling the off-season or weathering recessions. One week we can be working on custom helm seats and an antique sofa the next, but I would say one of the most profitable niches for us has become outdoor cushion sets. This type of work is a good fit for most marine fabricators because it is an extension of skills and knowledge that you already possess from marine cushion projects. Most customers who approach us with this type of job are looking to upgrade from a set of OEM cushions to something truly custom. This type of customer is ideal because they have already experienced the downsides of a lesser product, meaning they are prepared to pay more for your expertise and premium materials.
When tackling a new cushion project, the main concerns to address are fit, fabric and maintenance. So by the time a customer is ready to pull the trigger on new cushions, it usually means that their old cushions have already failed on all three fronts. We have found that most outdoor furniture comes with cushions that are not made with drain dry foam. This fatal flaw starts the quick disintegration of the cushion from the inside out and the persistent problem of seating that stays rain soaked even days after the skies have cleared.
We recently had a customer named Sherri come to us with these exact concerns. Sherri had an outdoor seating area complete with a sectional sofa, an armchair and two ottomans on her patio. The fabric color scheme of solid tan with brown welt was bland for her taste, and the lack of pattern and light color had led to too much visible dirt (photo 1). Her family used the seating area all summer and wanted something truly spectacular that reflected the same level of style as their home’s interior. Sherri also wanted something low-maintenance since this was their second home.
After a site visit for some initial measurements and a color consultation, it was onto the design phase and the search for just the right fabrics. With 6-inch drain dry foam eating up a big chunk of the project costs, price was going to be a factor when choosing a fabric. We also carved ourselves some extra room in the budget by eliminating the welt on the cushions and therefore saving on labor. Rather than seeing it as a sacrifice, Sherri and I agreed that we don’t like the way welt can catch dirt on an outdoor cushion and it also didn’t fit her sleek, modern aesthetic.
With this project being an off-season endeavor, most of my correspondence with Sherri had to occur through email and via phone since this was her summer home. After determining that she wanted to use different fabrics for the seat and back cushions, I went to work preparing three distinct fabric palettes from which she could choose her favorite (photo 2). I sent Sherri my design proposal complete with a rendered drawing and memo samples for each of the three options (photo 3). After she decided on the coral and brown color scheme consisting of the fabrics Sunbrella Dimone Flame (a wide stripe) and Sunbrella Spectrum Sierra (a solid color) it was time to decide how to apply them. My initial thought was to use the stripe on the back cushions until I came across a photo of a cushion set in House Beautiful magazine that shifted my perspective. Now I knew I wanted the stripes on the seats and the solid on the backs.
Something else became apparent from the magazine photo: The cushions should be bull-nosed. Sherri’s existing seat cushions had been done in a boxed style and trimmed in contrasting welt, but because we had already eliminated the welt we could just flow the stripe right over the front of the cushion without having two separate pieces to match as you would with a banded cushion.
The next thing that jumped out at me from the magazine photo was something I wanted to avoid (and they had tried to conceal by creative pillow placement): the corner cushion was visually awkward. One of the downsides of L-shaped furniture is how to handle a corner when you are using a fabric with a directional pattern such as a stripe. In the magazine they had the stripes on the corner cushion running perpendicular to the stripes on one of cushions next to it, which created what I would call a fabric butt joint. I pointed this out to Trevor and he said that he could miter two pieces of fabric together so that the corner cushion stripes were in a V-shape, which would make a beautiful transition from one side of the L to the other. Then to finish it off, Trevor would top-stitch the miter with clear PTFE thread to make the joinery appear seamless (photo 4).
When it came time to layout the fabric for each cushion, we decided to center on one of the coral stripes so that each cushion ended with a small amount of tan on both sides, this way when placed next to each other on the sofa, the fabric was flow matched. The solid fabric on the back cushions provided a blank canvas on which we could employ several different fabrics in the way of accent pillows.
Now it was time to play with fabrics again and also decide on the number and size of the pillows. At this point in the project, Sherri was super busy planning a wedding, so she gave us creative license to accessorize the project and get it to the finish line for the approaching Memorial Day holiday. Trevor and I took an assortment of stock pillows to Sherri’s to help us find the perfect mix of visual scale and comfort (photo 5). Once we decided that we wanted to use three different sizes of pillows, I began to search for a different fabric for each pillow size to create a rational and balanced design. I chose to use the subtle diamond pattern, Sunbrella Rae Marie Sunset, on the biggest pillows, which were placed in all three corners. The brightest fabric, Sunbrella Flagship Persimmon, was used the most sparingly on just two pillows. The third fabric, Sunbrella Bisbee Fiesta, provided a little relief from the darker colors, and it works well on the rectangular shaped pillows because of the thin vertical stripe (photo 6).
Sherri was thrilled with her new backyard oasis, and now she wants us to make new pillows for her indoor seating area as well. Just another example of how one type of work easily lends itself to another application.
Rebecca and Trevor Kennedy own Kennedy Custom Upholstery in Ocean City, N.J.