When he was a boy growing up in Philadelphia, Modesto Solano would look longingly out the window of his father’s furniture refinishing and upholstery shop to the street, where his friends were playing tag. Reluctantly, he’d turn his attention back to the tasks at hand—picking up tools, cleaning and putting them in place. As he got older, his father showed him how to use these tools to sand a chair, stain a table, stretch fabric. Little by little, Modesto was learning his father’s trade. “I didn’t like it at the time—I just wanted to be playing outside. But now I appreciate what he was doing,” he says.
Modesto’s father is now retired, but his uncle, Rafael Bautista, still works in the shop he started in Kennett Square fifty years ago, Bautista Upholstery & Refinishing. Rafael now divides his time between his adopted hometown of Kennett Square and his native Dominican Republic. He’s able to do this because his nephew Modesto ably manages the business for him while he’s away. Rafael apprenticed with various craftsmen to learn his trade, first in the Dominican Republic and then in Puerto Rico, before coming to Kennett Square. Longtime Kennett residents will remember Rafael’s first shop on Broad Street. After a move to Union Street, he settled into his current premises at 223 Birch Street, next to Taylor Oil.
Although furniture refinishing and upholstery work was in Modesto’s blood as well as being part of his early training, including time spent working with his uncle in the Kennett Square shop, Modesto went to Penn State to earn a degree in accounting and worked as an accountant in New York for seven years. “I did that to get away from furniture,” he says with a laugh. But, although he built a successful career as an accountant managing hedge funds, he realized it wasn’t what he wanted out of life. “I spent long hours on the clock crunching numbers on a balance sheet. I never met my clients. My only reward was a good paycheck—I wasn’t building anything,” he says. So he left his job to work with his uncle.
“Furniture refinishing is much more rewarding—both professionally and financially,” Modesto says, and he enjoys each part of the process. “I really like working with people, listening to them, showing them some possibilities. I go to someone’s house and take the table, sofa, or chair to be refurbished or repaired, then I bring it back to their house when it’s finished and see their excitement.” Before and after pictures show these transformations particularly well. Because they’re a small business so deeply rooted in the community, there’s a very real connection with customers and word-of-mouth recommendations keep them busy. “We want people to be happy and excited about the work we do for them,” Modesto says. “We do everything we can to get it right.”
In addition to customer service and craftsmanship, a wide variety of skills, and a deep and broad knowledge of furniture, style, and design, in addition to attention to detail, are all critical for this kind of work. The scope of their work ranges from repairing small scratches, rips, and tears to complete refinishing and reupholstery projects, including vintage, antique, and heirloom furniture pieces.
Whether it’s a small project repairing a single piece of furniture or a large one—such as the seating for a restaurant or pews for a church—Modesto also likes that no two projects are ever alike. “It’s always different, working with people with different tastes and personalities,” he says. While there’s not a lot that Modesto and Rafael haven’t done in terms of projects, the challenge is often helping people figure out what they want. “Part of my job is to shield customers from potential mistakes,” Modesto says, laughing. “It’s easy working with designers, for example, who know exactly what they want.” But each project involves lots of choices—from fabric and trimmings to hard or soft cushioning, stain colors, and more. The Bautista Upholstery & Refinishing showroom is full of books and samples, and Modesto and Rafael draw on their years of experience to guide customers through the process so that the finished piece is even nicer than they could have imagined.
One of the costs of being an expert with such a good reputation in this profession is being busy. “We’re four to six weeks behind right now,” Modesto says. He sits at his desk at the business’s Birch Street location. The room is crowded with chairs and sofas restored to their former glory and ready to be delivered as well as other pieces waiting to be transformed. The walls are lined with racks showcasing thousands of fabric samples. His wife, Elody Montero, and their daughter Nicole greet customers, answer the phone, organize orders. Modesto looks around and laughs. “I’m running all over the place constantly,” he says. “But it’s a good headache to have.”
Modesto has been working full-time with his uncle for about twenty years now, and he’s seen lots of trends come and go. “Designers used to want skirts on chairs and sofas, now they’re getting rid of them. But the changes come with the styles of fabric, or stain colors—not with what I do.”
While the time-honored skills of craftsmanship remain the same, attitudes towards older furniture and its value have shifted. Our throwaway mentality and the substandard quality of new furniture are very real problems, Modesto says. “Even very expensive furniture today is all built with pressed wood. Nothing is built to last, but to be replaced in three or four years. People think if something is expensive and looks nice on the outside, they’re getting good quality furniture—but they’re not. It’s next to impossible to even fix these pieces of junk people pay ridiculous prices for, because they’re not made of real wood.” There’s an enormous environmental cost, too. Repairing and giving older furniture a new look keeps cheap furniture out of landfills. Bautista Upholstery & Refinishing builds custom furniture as well, but they don’t build as much anymore because they always use real wood and people tend to shop around for less expensive options.
Young people in particular often think that new is better, Modesto says, and many don’t realize the value of what they have when a piece of furniture that’s built of solid wood is passed down to them. “Your grandmother’s sofa, even if it’s a hundred years old, is a hundred percent better than even a $10,000 sofa built today,” he says. And with so many options for refurbishment, Bautista Upholstery & Refinishing can give any piece a completely different look and feel, enhancing its value using the highest quality materials. One of the most satisfying parts of Modesto’s job is taking a piece of furniture that someone doesn’t value, or understand the value of, and amazing the owner with the transformation.
He loves telling the story behind a photograph in the shop of an apartment in the Dominican Republic. “We bought all of the furniture in at Habitat for $20 and refurbished it,” he says. “People can’t believe it didn’t all come from a high-end furniture store.”
Unfortunately, Modesto says, furniture refinishing and upholstering is a dying art. “Everything is done by hand. There are no shortcuts, and not too many people learn to do this anymore,” he says. “In this country, everything is focused on technology and most kids go to school because they want to work in front of a computer, not do something by hand that gets their hands dirty.”
“It’s funny,” Modesto says. “When I see some of those friends now, the ones who were playing outside while I was helping my father, very few of them have the freedom I have now, to do something I enjoy, working my own hours, and taking time to spend with my family and doing the things I want to do.” While she might not fully appreciate it for awhile yet, he’s trying to teach his daughter in a similar way.
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