It began as a series of ad hoc rescue missions: Andrea Mihalik would spot furniture languishing on curbs during her morning jogs around Haddonfield, and end up lugging the underappreciated specimens back to her garage.
Mihalik, 48, didn't know it at the time, but the collection of living-room rejects rapidly crowding the family cars out of their parking spots would soon launch her into a new career. As she would put it, the chairs just hadn't spoken to her yet.
Nearly a decade later, those salvaged finds are the basis for Mihalik's one-woman company, Wild Chairy, which turns family heirlooms and garage-sale gems into "art chairs" - one-of-a-kind pieces that merge old-school upholstery techniques with a high-fashion sensibility, while integrating materials not found in (or anywhere near) your typical furniture showroom.
Even Mihalik is hard-pressed to define what she does, dancing as it does on the lines between retail furniture, craft, and fine art.
"I put my own stamp on each chair and make it a Wild Chairy," she said. "I don't know how else to describe it."
Whatever the genre, Mihalik took a rather circuitous path to get there.
A Tyler School of Art graduate, Mihalik was a Daily News photojournalist for more than a decade before coming to the realization that raising three kids didn't mesh well with working overtime to cover FBI stakeouts. But one thing from her photography career stuck with her: memories of a studio building at Ninth and Spring Garden Streets, where she had photographed various artists over the years. She always wanted to have a studio there. What she would do with the space, though, was the lingering question.
Three years ago, she began studying upholstery, after the space-devouring chair collection prompted her husband to buy her a book on the subject. She apprenticed for four months at BDDW, a luxury furniture-maker that retails in SoHo but does its manufacturing in Philadelphia. And she went ahead and rented that studio.
"I thought, 'What am I going to do [with an artist's studio]? I'm not really an artist,' " she said. But she also is "not just an upholsterer. So I won't just put somebody's flannel fabric on a chair or couch for them. . . . I want to have a vision for my work. But I never knew when I started what I would be, and I don't know where I'm going. I just come to work every day because I really like it, and I try to do something different."
Those daily leaps of faith have paid off. Wild Chairy has been featured in Apartment Therapy and was included in the Architectural Digest Home and Design Show in New York in March. Mihalik has chairs "living" in homes up and down the East Coast.
Production is limited - partly because each chair is refurbished by hand, and partly because Mihalik is not one to simply pick a fabric and start stapling. Each chair, she said, has to "speak to her."
"The chairs have personalities," she said, pointing out a rollback chair, now covered with a pleated wool felt. "I had the chair in my garage for over a year. It didn't speak to me," until she found the perfect fabric for the job.
In the end, she painted the wood white, trimmed the chair with shimmering beadwork, and covered its back with delicate, ruffled dress fabric. "In all my pieces, I try to put a surprise on the back," she explained. "I'm interested in fashion and furniture and blending the two together, mixing in materials that aren't intended for upholstery."
Those visual surprises have included everything from a Louis XVI-style chair adorned with a chalkboard, to a pair of 18th-century French gilt chairs whose backs now serve as ornate frames for two halves of an oil painting on canvas by Sandra Hoffman, an artist who keeps a studio near Mihalik's. From behind, one wingback chair appears corseted, with laces running through grommets up to a tidy bow. Another piece in progress will include beadwork panels by Samburu women, commissioned by Mihalik after she visited their remote village in Kenya (they have no electricity, she said, but they were able to keep in touch via Facebook on phones charged sporadically by tribesmen who work as guides at safari camps a two-hour walk away).
As unconventional as each Wild Chairy appears on the surface, it's equally old-fashioned within, made with hand-tied springs, horsehair stuffing, and natural wool and cotton batting. It's expensive and labor-intensive - even a simple chair can take a week or two to complete, and prices run from $2,500 to $3,600 - but Mihalik said these chairs, many of them already antiques, are built to last.
"Everyone thinks change is always for the best, but I definitely think the old-world techniques are better in this instance."
That philosophy is attracting clients who want Mihalik to revive inherited pieces that no longer suit their lifestyles. For each, Mihalik draws up a proposal for a one-of-a-kind artwork that keeps the chair in the family - if not quite as grandma had imagined.
It's also gaining the notice of people like Joan Dempsey, who lives in Alexandria, Va., but is furnishing a newly purchased pied-à-terre in Manhattan.
Dempsey bought the pair of gilt chairs with oil paintings and is commissioning four more Wild Chairy originals to complete what will be a set of six coordinating dining chairs. She said she was looking for something both functional and beautiful - and the chairs, with their gilding and their backstory of artistic collaboration, fit the bill. Moreover, they offered something most furniture she came across did not: the unexpected.
"She does elevate a chair to something more than a place to sit," said Dempsey, attributing that in part to Mihalik's photojournalism background. "I've read that photographers, people who spend a lot of time behind the camera, see things the rest of us don't see. So it made sense to me that she would look at a scene differently and see something in a chair that I wouldn't see."
Wild Chairy also caught the eye of Yvette Freeman, owner of Foundry, a vintage store and "Parisian flea market" in Washington. Freeman contacted Mihalik and now sells her chairs, a few at a time. Freeman, an upholsterer herself, said that it's easy for upholstered work to look "very mainstream if you're not careful. Think page 57 of the Pottery Barn catalog." But Mihalik's surprising mix of fabrics and finishes tends to go in the opposite direction.
"What Andrea does is really modern - and I don't mean modern in style, I mean modern in thinking."
As if to prove the point, the most pressing job on Mihalik's plate is a commission for the International Furniture and Design Association's Take a Seat benefit auction for Hurricane Sandy relief. She is collaborating with textile artist Janell Wysock - who also keeps a studio in Mihalik's building - on a chair to be upholstered with fabric woven from 300 plastic shopping bags.
Once that's done, Mihalik's next goal is to merge her photography background with the furniture business, by using her photos to create custom fabrics for her chairs.
She'd better hurry: There are a dozen more chairs stacked in her studio and her garage, all awaiting their makeovers.
They may have to wait, Mihalik said.
"I haven't figured out their fabrics. They haven't spoken to me yet."