A Year in the Life of a Peranakan Chair
Conservator (Textiles), Heritage Conservation Centre
It was in 2015, the year in which Singapore celebrated its golden jubilee (also known as “SG50”), that I crossed paths with a beautiful Peranakan chair. This ornate chair (F-0042A) had been selected for display in the National Museum’s new Modern Colony gallery as part of its SG50 revamp, and it was with much excitement and trepidation that I began conservation treatment on it.
As a textile conservator, it is rare to have the opportunity to work on upholstery. As upholstery encompasses various components of wood, nails, fabric and assorted stuffing, it was essential to discuss the matter and collaborate with conservators from other fields. In particular, we were fortunate to have Kate Gill, an upholstery conservator from the United Kingdom, with us for a workshop and she was able to provide advice and shed more light on the construction of the chair.
Pair of Peranakan chairs F-0042 A, B Courtesy of the National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board
About the chair
The chair was one of a pair in Singapore’s National Collection, and it was due to go on open display in the Modern Colony gallery, which meant possible damage such as exposure to light, dust, pests, rough handling and even theft. As part of any conservation treatment, it was crucial for us to gather background information on the chair in order to decide on the treatment process. The curator overseeing the Modern Gallery at the time, Chung May Khuen, provided some information on the chair – it was seen in photographs of Mrs Lee Choon Guan, who was from a well-to-do Peranakan family from Malacca. The chair was featured in photos between 1950–1965 and this particular upholstery was seen in photos by 1977.
On closer examination of both chairs, it was discovered that there had been at least two other changes to the upholstery of the chair on the left; the earliest being a green-and-white fabric seen on the other chair (F-0042B), followed by a red fabric with embroidery, and finally, its current maroon cover. Chairs often go through many “lives” when their upholstery and even wood are refurbished, and it was likely that this chair had gone through similar changes.Together with the curator, we decided that this final cover would be maintained as it was the cover the chair was acquired with in 1980, as well as featured in Mrs Lee Choon Guan’s 100th birthday photos in 1977.
Peranakan seat cover
(Left to Right) Final cover, lining of the second cover, first cover of the chair.
Condition of the chair
Area of the exposed wooden frame and detached gold braid trimming.
The construction of upholstery can often be very complex. Below the top sponge layer one sees in the chair seat is several possible layers of stuffing – which may include wool, horse hair or coir, springs or fabric webbing – that gives the seat its height and desired shape. By examining the other chair, we were able to gather what the original upholstery was possibly like.
A possible scenario was that the springs and straps holding the stuffing of the seat were giving way and causing the chair cover to tear away from the wooden frame. An in-depth treatment option would be to take apart the entire chair seat and its stuffing, and tighten the springs and straps holding the stuffing together before re-securing the chair cover. Our main concern, however, was that the chair seat cover had come away from the nails that held it down, exposing the stuffing and the wooden frame below. The gold braid trimming had also detached in several areas.
The underside of the other chair, with exposed coils and straps, gives us an idea of what the chair we were treating would look like.
Conservation treatment undertaken in 2015
The risk of this in-depth treatment was that it might be beyond our ability to put the chair back together. Finally, after much debate with several conservators from different fields, we decided to undertake a more aesthetic rather than structural treatment to cover the exposed sponge seat.
This involved dyeing twill silk fabric that was similar in texture to the chair cover with conservation-grade Lanaset dyes (a type of acid dye) to match the maroon cover. This fabric was inserted under the lifting chair cover and lined up to the edge of the nails. An adhesive strip called Beva 371 (Berger Ethylene Vinyl Acetate 371) was then applied onto the edge of the textile and activated with a heated spatula at 70 degrees Celsius for 1 minute to adhere it to the wooden frame. The conservation treatment was a success and the chair was now ready for display in the National Museum.
Silk twill fabric that had been dyed to match the chair colour,
with the strip of Beva 371 on the bottom edge.
Detail of the maroon fabric lined up to the edge of the chair.
The chair was aesthetically improved after
the treatment was completed.
Further conservation treatment in 2016
After the chair had been on display for a year, it was discovered in 2016 that the seat cover had further detached, revealing even more of the wooden frame beneath it.
Detailed shot showing how more of the wooden frame can now be seen.
There were several possibilities as to why this happened. One was that the springs of the chair had risen, causing the seat to rise and the cover to no longer be able to cover it. This tension may then have caused the cover to rip away from the nails that held it down. There was, however, no change in the measurements of the chair seat, which indicated that it had not risen as originally thought. Another possibility was that the chair might have mishandled by the public as it was on open display and within reach of curious hands.
As part of our conservation treatment this time, a larger insert was made and a strip of Nomex paper (meta-aramid calendared fiber) was inserted to make the fabric smoother and to give it more structure. The braid was then stitched on with Skala (a polyester low-twist thread) thread.
Twill fabric insert wrapped around a Nomex
sheet for a smoother structure.
Beva 371 was tested at various levels of heat and timing to find the optimum method of adhering the fabric to the chair frame. After rounds of testing, we opted to activate the Beva strip at 85 degrees Celsius for 10 seconds.
A heated spatula was used to activate the Beva 371 strip that would adhere the dyed fabric insert to the wooden frame.
Detailed shot showing the entire insert
for the chair cover.
After discussion with the curator of the gallery, it was decided that a metal barrier would be installed to protect the chair from curious hands. As much as we would rather not put a distance between an object and the public, our duty is to protect the artefacts and it is necessary to achieve a balance between accessibility and preservation.
The conserved chair was displayed behind a metal barrier in order to protect it from further damage.
The Peranakan chair was eventually removed from display in 2017, and checked before being returned to storage at the Heritage Conservation Centre. Plans for its possible future display are currently being discussed, and I’m sure that many exciting and challenging hours lie in wait for the conservators when we next have the opportunity to work on it.