Ainsworth Broughton, Upholsterer
My interview with master upholsterer Ainsworth Donovan Broughton of 14 Calvert Avenue (commonly known as Mike) was perforce a swift one because he had three sofas, four chairs, a day bed and a Chesterfield to upholster before the end of this week. Although I arrived at the beginning of the working day, Ainsworth had been in since seven, stealing a march on time, and, as you can see from the picture, he had already made swift work of the day bed. Once I arrived, he sat down on his work bench, crossed his arms and displaying his good-humoured accommodating smile, declared, “Right, let’s get this done!”- with the same workmanlike sense of purpose that he would approach a challenging piece of upholstery.
Not so long ago, Shoreditch and Bethnal Green were the home of a thriving furniture industry that has almost entirely disappeared now. While there are people in the neighbourhood who may call themselves upholsterers these days, Ainsworth is the only one that has done the full apprenticeship in traditional upholstery and qualified under the Association of Master Upholsterers. More than this, Ainsworth is the living connection to the time when furniture-making flourished here. Although he is not self-conscious about it, he carries that history on his shoulders, which enables him to carry it lightly – because as the factories closed down and the other traditional upholsterers retired, Ainsworth simply carried on resolutely upholstering chairs and making an honest living at it while the world (and the East End) transformed around him. It was the natural thing for him to do, and it is this ease with his work, and commitment to his craft which makes Ainsworth such a dignified figure today.
“I specialise in traditional upholstery, although I can do whatever people bring along. Traditional upholstery is the old way of doing it, with stuffing and stitching and horsehair. I love it. The modern stuff is just foam! When I found traditional upholstery, I knew I had found my vocation in life. At the London College of Furniture, they banned me from the workshop because I used to stay behind after hours, always stuffing and stitching. Traditional upholstery is just quality – you know it will last thirty years or more. Working out from a frame how to do everything, that’s the joy of it. I’ve always liked to build something up, take it from frame to finished job and see people appreciate my work. There’s pieces of mine I have done for interior designers at Liberty, Sketch and Manolo Blahnik but the people there don’t know my name.
At fifteen, I did a day release from school at the London College of Furniture, and the head of the department saw what I was doing and said, ‘You could be good at this.’ After college, I was apprenticed to furniture makers A&E Chapman of Crouch End for five years and then I had the opportunity to stay on for another couple of years and be an ‘improver’ – before that you were just prepping. One day they took me into the office and said, ‘We’re going to let you loose,’ and it didn’t take much longer before I was able to work at the bench, but I always wanted to be self-employed. So in 1981, I took a studio in the Cleve Workshops in Boundary St and I used to do a day’s work before coming here to do a few ‘copper jobs’ – on the side.
Then one day I took a chance and left, and for six months I had hardly any work but slowly it picked up. I had one customer and then another and it continued like that. Back in the day, every shop in Shoreditch was an upholsterer but they’ve all gone now. In 1984, when the Cleve Workshops were sold, I managed to get one of the derelict shops in Calvert Avenue. The whole area was completely desolate then, there wasn’t anybody living here, but it enabled me to have a workshop because it was cheap. I never took my shutters down until seven years ago, because there was no passing trade, but recently it’s been different, there’s people here who are into traditional upholstery and so I get work locally now. “
Ainsworth does not even have a sign outside his shop, yet customers come and go all the time. In the window you simply see a photocopy of his certificate presented to the most outstanding student at the London College of Furniture in 1976/77. Looking through the metal grille into the crowded workshop where Ainsworth works from seven until seven each day, you see a high shelf up above where bare frames of furniture await his attention, while the walls are lined with racks of tools, cloth swatches and innumerable calculations pencilled directly onto the plaster, and the lino tiles from the shop that Ainsworth superseded in 1984 still cover the floor. In front of the window is a shelf to display his finished handiwork – only Ainsworth is so inundated that it is always piled with incoming work. “I could do even more, if I had an assistant – but I never want to employ anyone.”, he said, shrugging his shoulders dispassionately and revealing the enviable self-reliance that is the source of his tranquil manner.
I did not want to take any more of his working day. So once he was assured that I was satisfied with his interview, I asked Ainsworth if he thought he would finish the three sofas, four chairs, day bed and Chesterfield this week. “We’ll give it a go!” he declared with a smirk as he stood up from the work bench with energy rising, eager to set to work again. Even if anyone that has done a course can claim to be an upholsterer nowadays, it seems that there are plenty who recognise that the noble Ainsworth Broughton is the genuine article – an artist whose technique is stitching and medium is horsehair, practicing a skill acquired through an apprenticeship of five years, with an expertise honed over thirty years, and executed with a satisfaction and delight that is his alone.
Ainsworth in 1973, when he first started at London College of Furniture.
Ainsworth at work on his graduation piece, London College of Furniture, 1976.
Ainsworth Broughton, Master Upholsterer of Calvert Avenue, commonly known as Mike.