Martina Sperl (38) is a self-employed upholsterer who breathes new life into ancient seating furniture and design classics. Neither her education nor her approach are traditional and she beautifully covers the wide spectrum from tradition and handcraft to modern materials and an international approach. Only recently she got married and lives together with her husband Oliver in Graz.
What is so thrilling about restoring old furniture?
I have always been interested in different materials and fabrics and in combing modern textiles with old furniture. I really like the idea of maintaining something classical and old – that has been around for so many years – and of converting it in something different that young, modern people want to have around them. It is also a fact has there has already been so much fabulous design around – so why not re-interpret something already good? Also, in the old days, people manufactured everything in top quality as there was cheap labor. Those pieces are made for eternity. Today companies cut costs and it is consumerism that outweighs the idea of passing a product on to the next generation. You can hardly find any hand stitching nowadays.
How do you know how to restore old pieces true to the original?
It is the furniture itself that really teaches you a lot. In terms of real design classics, like for example the Womb Chair by Eero Saarinen (Design 1948), I had to investigate and learn how to do it. Instagram is a big help. I am linked to upholsterers worldwide and everybody helps each other. In this particular case I got in touch with an upholsterer based in Chicago who just does design classics. Finally, he sent me cutting patterns and instructions, walked through his studio with his cell camera on and explained to me how to make a Womb Chair. In my job you definitely need to be proactive, continue to learn and contact companies in order to get information.
Which kind of seating furniture do you prefer? Are there any preferences in terms of eras?
In general, I like to work on all pieces but I have to say that big ranges tend to get boring. I do prefer individual work. When it comes to sofas, I have a pain barrier which lies at about 150cm, because then they become too heavy and I cannot lift and turn them anymore. As I work alone I constantly have to move the pieces by myself. I think that the furniture pieces out of the period between 1950 and 1970 are really interesting, regardless of country of origin, because then there was a lot happening everywhere.
Where do you find the pieces?
Sometimes at flea markets, much via the internet but I also have professional retailers who know what I am interested in and contact me whenever they receive special furniture. Of course I prefer seating furniture that are not in a perfect shape because I’d like to transform them into individual pieces. Actually there are no hopeless cases at all but it might be a question of price. I can restore everything. When working on design classics, I do spend most of the time with finding the original materials. I need so much time for research and the client sometimes cannot relate to that. Once I had to look for the original belts for a Barcelona-Chair and it took me forever to provide them. Still, now I know where to get them and I could rebuild another one in no time.
If you get or buy furniture, do you also get a story with it?
Sure, people love to tell stories and provide background information. What is really beautiful is the fact that the story of the piece continues as I also know where the furniture goes to. This piece for example, that I bought somewhere in Upper Austria and that stems from the 1960s or 1970s, will travel in a new look to Sebastian Proedl (Austrian soccer player) who lives in London. There it will become part of a new story.
You work on your own – does that bother you?
I had to get used to it, as before I was always working in teams. Right now I am luckily surrounded by some companies and there are people that I have coffee with once in a while. What I miss the most is to exchange views and ideas and to receive feedback from others. I have to find out and decide everything myself. I wish there would be more professional discussions. I also try to stick to fixed working hours and necessarily not to work on the weekends. Still, if you are a one-man-show and big orders come in, you cannot handle it differently and work on Sundays as well.
What do you consider the most interesting material?
I love leather because you can process it perfectly. You can create forms that are impossible to make with fabrics – except loden, which you can also stretch pretty much. Leather is like a second skin. Still, it is also very exhausting to work with it, as you need to stretch and pull all the time. After working on a leather chair, I am done, my hands hurt and I realize why I do not do any sports. I have already suffered a hernia from my work and Tiger Balm is my constant companion. I actually have to turn and lift a chair a hundred times, which really challenges my body. Interesting enough, in spite of the physical efforts, the most upholsterers – internationally speaking – are young women. There is a real community on Instagram. I think, the reason for this is that you need immense patience and apparently women are better at being patient. Additionally, you must not freak out and need to be calm. Nothing works according to plan and you must try out things every day. This makes it hard to delegate work and train somebody. Every single pieces that comes in is actually a new adventure.
If Johnny Depp stood in front of your door one day and would want to have a piece of furniture by you, what would you like to make for him?
I know that he actually owns a pretty cool flat with furniture that make my heart beat faster. I would manufacture something extraordinary for him, maybe a wacky chair or a bench in muted colors – in gray or black. Those are also my favorite colors.
Now you live in the middle of the city, but originally you come from Murau (Upper Styria). How did your origin shape you?
It definitely made me curious. I have always wanted to explore new things. After my graduation, I immediately escaped to London and later on I visited many different places. All the experiences I made, I can definitely use today – in whatever way. The fact that you get to know foreign cultures when travelling is important in business life nowadays. Due to the internet, the world has become really small. Additionally, I also need a base – a place to call home. Although sometimes I find Graz too little and I need to travel, it is my base, the place where my friends live and I know everything. Right now, there is really is no other place where I could imagine living. Still, there are a lot of beautiful places where I like to spend time. I definitely love Italy but I always appreciate returning to Graz.
When you travel, do you also buy furniture on the way?
Of course! No matter where I am, I always find something that I can take home. My husband has now bought a Mini – I think on purpose (laughs) – but I still manage to stow some chairs and even a sofa. He naturally hates me for it, when we drive home from Florence looking like a family emigrating to another country.
Was it hard to professionally settle down in Graz?
No, not really. Still, I do not know, if I would be brave enough to do it again. Everybody advised against doing it as they said that nobody would need a business like that. That was my biggest motivation to still try it. One of my first clients was Haarschneiderei (a hairdresser in Graz) and I got a lot of positive feedback and publicity so that I got further clients pretty soon.
Are there others in Graz who do the same thing?
Actually recently a young lady opened her own upholsterer’s shop. She really does it well and has specialized in Danish design classics. I find it cool that there are others who also dare to open up such businesses. Unfortunately, the classic upholsterers do not share my point of view and there is no intention to exchange views or experiences or just have a look what is going on. I do not fear competition and find it positive to be able to join forces in terms of ordering fabrics abroad for example. I respect everybody who chooses to take that path. Additionally, this lady has a little child, which makes the business even more challenging. We all should support people like her.
How do you spend your evenings?
In general, I am a very social person. As I spend the whole day by myself in the shop, I need to meet people in the evenings. Especially in summer I love to be outside, have a drink with friends and have a mutual exchange. Due to the hard physical work, I tend to be very tired and exhausted in the evening, so if I went home immediately, I would fall asleep and miss my whole life. That is why it is not so bad to force yourself to have a vivid social life.
If you party, are you more the Afternoon-Prosecco-Type or the last one to leave the bar at 5AM?
Sadly, both (laughs).
You are newlywed – was that a plan or did your husband surprise you with his proposal?
He definitely surprised me. Getting married had never been that important to us. We have already been together for 10 years and I must say that the first time I laid eyes on him, I knew, that we would be together forever, either with a certificate or not. So it was for sure not something I was waiting for. Of course we have somehow fallen in love again although nothing has really changed.
If you could undo one thing in life – what would that be?
I am a real head person and I fear mistakes. It has always been important to me that I would never regret anything. Therefore, I have done a lot of things alone, because I am very stubborn and I want to get my way. Everything I have done, was a conscious choice and I cannot think of anything I would want to reverse. Of course there are little details that did not work out but they had not been important for my life and I do not regret them. You need to use all your experiences somehow.
Which superpower would you like to have?
I would like to be able to change people. I hate people who are rude for example. If I meet impolite and rude people, I would really like to change them at the touch of a button. Further, I would really love to be able to fly. I often dream about that.
What is still on your bucket list?
In the shop I would like to change the concept a bit – concentrate more on my own designs. Maybe refurnish everything a little bit. Then, I would like to think about having a family. I really need time to think this over as there never seems enough time and there is so much work and new challenges. As far as my job is concerned, I would also not want to stay in Graz forever. Maybe try out something else.
Who would you like to interview?
Ray Eames, a wonderful artist and designer who really created sustainable pieces of furniture.
Happiness: Is not for granted, but a gift.
Love: Something really special and very beautiful if somebody finds it but also not easy.
Pain: Is a constant part of life.
Freedom: The most important thing ever. Also for yourself.
Honesty: Actually very important but on the other hand you cannot always be truly honest, because you would have to hurt people. The good old white lie is hence okay.
Womanliness: I like being a woman but I feel annoyed by discussions on the topic of women. I love if a man opens the door for me or lets me walk on the inside when we are on the street. This does not make we weaker or worth less than men. For me this is part of being polite and respectful.