Local couple enjoys the art of upholstery: Why David and Liz Youngdahl are reaping what they sew — success
by WILLIAM WRIGHT
Sep 19, 2012 | 2425 views | 0 0 comments | 44 44 recommendations | email to a friend | print
David and Liz
DAVID AND LIZ YOUNGDAHL of Cleveland work together in the upholstering business. She owns Throw Me A Pillow, which offers decorative needlepoint pillows at affordable prices. He owns Renaissance Custom Upholstery, offering custom-made upholstery using traditional hand stitching. Right, David stands next to one of his handmade creations, a wing chair, with a pillow provided by Throw Me A Pillow. Banner photos, WILLIAM WRIGHT
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As a child he was trained by his father to work with his hands in the fine art of carpentry and upholstering. But no one who knew David Youngdahl would have guessed he would make a career out of a skill that required so much discipline when he was talented enough to become a distinguished actor, having attended the same school of acting as Spencer Tracy, Kirk Douglas, Grace Kelly, Robert Redford, Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall and Cecil B. de Mille.

However, David said he found a spiritual side to himself, which made the simple life of upholstering a more comfortable fit for the lifestyle he truly wanted. Today, the former chairman of the National Guild of Master Upholsterers and former chapter chairman of the National Association of Professional Upholsterers, said he is grateful to his late father, Ira, for teaching him so much about his craft and the veteran upholsterers he was privileged to work with in New York as an apprentice.

“My father was a civil engineer,” David said. “Many people in Cleveland knew him and saw examples of his work at his funeral. The fact that he was an engineer and owner of C.E. Youngdahl Inc. — who built the control tower at LaGuardia Airport in New York — was something I am proud of. But he didn’t do engineering at home. He did crafts. He did letter carvings, he made suits and dresses for my mother, he carved wood and loved doing crafts with his hands!”

David said his father “never did anything without showing me or involving me in one way or another. I didn’t really understand that he did something else as a career because that’s what he showed me. That’s what we did together — wood carvings, wood models, making planes with 6-foot wingspans. That was my life.”

But David thought he wanted another life after high school. Although he had earned a full state scholarship to cover his education, David went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts to study acting instead of pursuing academics. Later he discovered the life of acting would prove too difficult for the direction he really wanted to take.

“When my life started taking a more spiritual focus and I wanted to dedicate my life to the work Jesus did, I became less interested in acting and university education, and more interested in sharing the good news of God’s Kingdom and living a simpler life,” he said.

David said he was reminded of the fact that Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul were also craftsmen who focused their efforts primarily on seeking spiritual treasures and pleasing God, instead of secular things. This had a profound effect on him.

“I knew Jesus was a carpenter and Paul was a tentmaker. So it seemed reasonable to me that it would be suitable for me as a Christian,” he said. “When I read Ephesians 4:28 where Paul told the brothers in Ephesus to do with their hands what is good work — that had a big effect on me!”

So did meeting Liz, the woman he would marry in 1979, at the age of 21. Liz had considerable sewing skills and a talent in home decorations. Together, their lives provided a pattern of simple Christian living and hard work.

“I was stocking shelves at night, teaching myself upholstery during the day and selling Tupperware in the evening,” he said with a laugh. “I didn’t have marketable skills at this point.”

Living a life far from luxurious in the Big Apple, the couple was pleased when her brother gave them a wooden hide-a-bed that needed upholstering.

We had nothing else so we decided to work on that together,” David recalled. “She said, ‘I can sew if you can cut.’ I said, ‘I can cut it if you can take it apart, and I’ll put it back together.’ And that’s what we did. Also, the wood needed to be refinished with some repair work to be done.”

In their first joint venture, the newlyweds turned a throwaway hide-a-bed into a well-crafted, refurbished work of art. Within a year of their marriage a woman Liz worked with told them she was going away for six months and wanted to find an upholsterer to have some work done on a sofa, two chairs and an ottoman.

“I figured, in six months I could do this!” he said. “And we did. That was the first upholstery job where we got paid. I showed up on Liz’s job with a machine that makes buttons and I told her we’re going to be upholsterers. The furniture the lady had, contained a bunch of buttons. You could buy the buttons or buy the machine that makes the buttons. I bought the machine. I took pictures of the work and took them to the best shop I could find. It was the premiere shop and design room in the capitol region of New York, called, Mayfair Design Center. But their work was being done by Fred Sisto Associates, which was right down the street. That’s where I went. I knew I wanted to work with the best. They did all of the draperies, gold leafting, woodworking, refinishing, upholstery and slip covers for all the government buildings in New York.”

Instead of filling out an application in hopes of getting hired, David said, “I took pictures of a few jobs I had done, brought them to Fred Sisto Associates, dropped them on the bosses’ desk and said, ‘Here are pictures of my work. I decided it would be easier to BE a good employee than FIND a good employee. Then I made for the door to see if he would stop me. Fortunately, he stopped me. That was the only set of pictures I had!

“He brought me upstairs and showed me the shop. When I got up there I saw all these older guys in there working. As soon as the boss was out of the room I said, ‘Hey, guys — I don’t know nothing about all of this. I’ve done a few pieces, but I need more training.’ They said, ‘We have 20 chairs from Siena College that need to be done for their library. They’re identical and the work is boring. None of us wants to do them, but that would be a great way for you to learn. We’ll teach you how to do it! One of the guys, Dominic Verdile, said, ‘I’ll show you how to do it once! One time! If you can get it — fine. If you can’t — get out!’”

According to David, the man showed him one time and he caught on quickly.

“The guy who taught me, Harold Ras Mussen, was in his 80s in the 1970s and he had been upholstering since he was 16 years old,” David said. “So the experience that I built on goes back 100 years at this point. He taught me the methods they were using to make new furniture back when your antiques were brand new.”

Now that they have been in the South for 22 years, David, the owner of Renaissance Custom Upholstery, and Liz, owner of Throw Me a Pillow, have become seasoned at cutting and sewing loose covers as well as re-covers and complete upholstery renovation. But the design and manufacturing of distinctive furniture or custom made upholstery comes with a price that can only be measured by the sentimental value of cherished items, according to the Cleveland couple.

“It cost as much to reupholster as it does to buy new furniture,” David said. “But the one thing furniture companies cannot sell is the chair that grandma sat in or the chair that my mother nursed me in. So while it may cost the same to reupholster as it does to buy new, you cannot put a price on the memories associated with some furniture. We treat our customer’s furniture as a custom piece and we lovingly take care of it because we understand its true value. Plus they get their choice of fabrics.”

While local furniture companies produce excellent furniture in volumes, Dave and Liz said they still favor a skilled craft approach where the furniture is upholstered using traditional techniques, including hand stitching.

“You spend the same money, yes, but you’re getting more for your money because I take care of the little things that make your items better” David explained. “As a Christian, my craftsmanship matters because I have to work whole-souled as to Jehovah, and not to men. So, not only do I have to face the people — but I have to face God and say I did my best. That is my life.”

For further information, visit www.throwmeapillow.com or call 423-284-1035.