While walking through Collectic Home a few months ago, I stopped dead in my tracks in front of this ottoman:
Such a simple and extraordinary concept! Made of linen, the piece features embroidered line drawings of leaf clusters and olive green velvet buttons. Sitting next to this ottoman was another design I loved even more:
It turns out the designer, Sheri Bingham, is an Austinite whose company, Iron Thread Design, creates ottomans, benches and headboards with a signature style. Sheri used to be a math teacher, which explains the incredibly precise tufting that is a trademark of every piece in her line. After discovering we had a mutual friend, we hooked up over coffee. “It’s funky without being in-your-face funky,” Sheri says of her furniture. “I don’t want a whole couch in some crazy fabric, but I love crazy fabric on a button next to linen, where you just get that little touch.”
I wondered, how does one go from being a math teacher to a furniture designer? For Sheri, you just start hacking into an upholstered chair. I had this chair. One day I took a pair of scissors and just started ripping it open to see what was inside. Like, oh, I can just put it back together. Then I was like, oh crap, how am I gonna do this? I read books that said you could do upholstery at home, but it turns out you can’t. There are so many tools and so many tricks to doing every little chair or couch. It’s not simple. A good friend of mine (locally famous singer/songwriter Toni Price) set me up with a friend of hers who does upholstery and I learned how to do that chair. Then I signed up at ACC (Austin Community College) for their upholstery class. But once again, you’re only learning how to do that one chair. Then I started doing chairs and couches for friends and eventually I started sharing studio space with my studio partner, Sabrina, who’d been doing upholstery so long she could answer all of my questions.
Bingham’s more likely to be inspired by industrial machinery than by other furniture designers. I try really hard not to look around at other people’s work. I don’t read the magazines I want to be in—that scares me. I don’t want to be thrown off my track. Sometimes when I see a picture of someone else’s work, I’m immediately down on my own stuff. I think, “Mine’s too simple. Maybe I should be doing something different. It’s like going to the mall and looking all of the mannequins dressed up—”Oh, I would look cute with legs like that!” My husband reads Metropolitan Home, Dwell, and Atomic Ranch and gets inspired. I don’t feel the same way—I get the opposite. I just sort of shut down. I wish I could be like him, because I think it’s awesome that he has so much self-confidence.
Where did the name Iron Thread come from? I wanted something that would make me feel strong, but also referred to what I was doing.
How is your furniture “green”? The wood is FSC-certifiable—it’s gone through the exact process that FSC-certified wood has gone through. Many people don’t know that FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) is a for-profit company. If you want your wood FSC-certified, you have to pay for that certification, which drives up the cost. My furniture would cost twice as much if I got the stamp. The point is not the stamp—the point is that I want it without the poisons, so the wood I use is made the exact same way. A lot of the fabrics that I use are natural fibers and I also have a green line with organic and recycled fabrics. My vinyl is urethane vinyl, which doesn’t have the chemicals they put in polyurethane vinyl, so it’s a much greener alternative. I am for changing things over time and phasing out the bad stuff, but there needs to be good alternatives. Some materials are cost-prohibitive. If I have a regular option and a green option and they’re close to the same price, I’ll go for the green materials. If FSC was a non-profit and all of the money went back into environmental projects, then I’d pay to have the stamp.
Can a client customize their buttons? I wouldn’t have any problem with that. I would love for people to bring me old T-shirts that meant something to them, or old baby blankets or any textile that meant something to them—we could incorporate that. It would be so easy for people to put a few scraps of fabric in an envelope and send it to me to use in their piece.
Bingham also loves incorporating little surprises into her work, such as a button that features the cropped face of Frida Kahlo (headboard at left, below) or Amy Butler fabrics on the seldom-seen undersides and backs of her pieces:
The mother of two boys and a girl (Caden, 15; Quinn, 10; and Duval, 8), Sheri enjoys a certain quirky playfulness on occasion:
Most parents freak out if their kids mess up the furniture. As the creator, do you take it personally if your kids go crazy on your upholstery? Not at all. I’ve actually been surprised… when I brought home my first button bench, I was a little concerned. That was my prototype—my baby—and the kids play on it all the time. Because it’s a linen color, dirt just seems to blend in. I also spray the hell out of everything I make, and recommend re-spraying every six months. I use this eco spray that’s really amazing. When I first started using it, I was a little scared because it’s “eco,” but I tried to rub in cranberry juice and it just pilled up. I could not get it into the fibers!
Other pieces from Bingham’s home, made before she zeroed in on her button-tufted line:
Do you get your sense of style from either of your parents? (Laughing) No! We don’t see eye-to-eye style-wise at all. We did not grow up in a stylish household. My mom’s house is very southwestern. My dad has no style. This would never have been an acceptable profession for me growing up. My parents were very professional, which is why I went and got my degrees first (in religious studies and math education). Once I got my degrees, I felt like I could do whatever the hell I wanted to do. Like I already had that golden ticket—look, I’ve already proven myself! I never wanted to be a professional of any kind. I just wanted to be silly and goofy—I’m a total dork in my shop!
I noticed that you trained in opera and jazz. Do you do any singing now? No. I sang opera on stage for years but once I had kids I stopped. My stage fright issues are huge! Now I just make a point of singing to my kids every night. Helen Reddy, Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Diamond—the good stuff! If nobody’s in my studio, I like to play opera really loud and sing. But if someone’s in there, I just think, “Oh my gawd, how annoying would that be?!”
Sheri Bingham is having fun working on a spinning ottoman, as well as a line of sofas and chairs. You can find Iron Thread furniture in Austin at Collectic Home, IF+D, Izzy and Ash, and Sanctuary. After Iron Thread hits the Vegas furniture market come February, you’ll undoubtedly be able to find her at retailers across the nation, too. Circle and square ottomans retail for around $860, and headboards range from $580-790, depending on the size.