UI furniture shop's foreman recently retired, still upholstering


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   DEWEY ? David Deem's handiwork can be seen throughout University of Illinois buildings ? from the standard dorm couches in residence hall lounges to the leather sofas in the library at Allerton House, from the simple desk chairs in Grainger Engineering Library to the Chippendale dining room chairs at the President's House.

   ?We're the recyclers of furniture,? said Deem, who has repaired and upholstered furniture at the UI's furniture shop for 25 years. ?I think it's really neat and very important to keep tradition going. A lot of the older furniture is kind of neat in the way it was built, with a lot of care. It's got so much history, with all the people sitting at the same desk for hundreds of years.?

   That's why some of his favorite projects are antiques and pieces of elegant furniture in administrative offices and areas for entertaining guests. He upholstered two dozen dining room chairs in the President's House in 1987, dressing the seats with needlepoint covers featuring Illinois wildflowers. Judy Ikenberry, wife of former UI President Stanley Ikenberry, commissioned needlepointers across the state to create the pieces.

   He covered three sofas at Allerton House in dark green leather tufted with buttons.

   ?They were a mess when I got them, but boy, they came out good,? Deem said.

   He has done many other pieces of furniture in the President's House and family heirlooms for his own customers, including Judy Ikenberry. He recovered a family chair in leather for her, and he has her thank-you note framed and hanging on his workshop wall.

   Deem, 65, was foreman of the UI's furniture shop for the past eight years before retiring earlier this spring. He has done upholstery work for 50 years now, and he still does work for his own customers from his home workshop.

   His home in rural Dewey was built with his work in mind, and that of his wife, Dorothy, a seamstress. They each have a work area, side by side. Deem calls Dorothy his ?right-hand man.?

   His work space, next to the garage, has tools hanging on the walls, an air compressor to operate his staple gun, fabric samples, a sewing machine and a button maker in the corner.

   Her room next door has her sewing machine; a cutting table; and cabinets for storing her buttons, thread and other supplies. She was sewing children's pajamas recently for her grandchildren, and she also makes them for the Crisis Nursery in Urbana.

   She also sews the skirts for the couches and chairs Deem upholsters, finishes the fabric coverings for the armpieces, makes throw pillows and does the office work for him. She tears apart the furniture before he begins his work, taking off the fabric and pulling out the stuffing.

   ?I do the dirtiest work, and I love it,? she said. ?I take out all my frustrations on the furniture.?

   The two were in the same class at Urbana High School and married in 1957, when they were both 19.

   Deem was just 15 when he began learning how to upholster furniture. He didn't know anything about it when he began an apprenticeship, but it didn't take him long to figure out it was for him. He still loves the work after 50 years.

   ?I liked to be busy, and I liked to use my hands,? he said. ?It's a job you just don't get tired of. Even now, I'm learning how new furniture is put together and how to take it apart and how to make it better. It's kind of neat to take a real old junky chair and make it look nice.?

   ?He is one of the few people in this world who really loves his work,? Dorothy said. ?He's not a workaholic. He just really enjoys it.?

   Deem got his start after he helped to demolish an old motel and build the first building that housed Beck's Country Shoppe, at Five Points in Urbana. Jack Beck was starting the furniture business, and he offered Deem an apprenticeship.

   Deem worked during his junior and senior years in high school, through a work program that allowed students to go to school for half the day and work learning a trade for half the day, as long as they kept their grades up.

   He worked at Beck's Country Shoppe for 25 years, helping build its existing location on North Cunningham Avenue, before going to the UI for the benefits it offered to help support his five children.

   Deem credits Mr. Beck with teaching him the craft ? how to use webbing for the base underneath the springs, how to hand-tie the coil springs to get the desired shape in the seat, how much stuffing and fabric to use to create tufting, a crown of fabric between buttons on the back of a piece of furniture. He also gained an appreciation for antiques, which he says are better made than today's furniture.

   ?He took a lot of pride in his work personally, and he took a lot of pride in the job his shop did. They are a tremendous group of craftsmen and women,? said Dean Henson, supervisor of building maintenance craftsmen at the UI.

   ?When he was here, he was all business. He had a job to do, and he had people with a job to do, and he expected them to do it,? Henson continued. ?From a personal point of view, I just counted on him. The furniture shop was something I didn't have to worry about because I knew it was in good hands, and if there was a problem, he would let me know about it. Usually, when he came through the door with a problem, he came through the door with a solution.?

   One technique Deem was well-known for at the UI was holding furniture tacks in his mouth and spitting them one-by-one onto the magnetic end of his hammer as he covered a piece of furniture with fabric.

   ?He can put tacks, one size here and one size here,? Dorothy said, indicating her cheeks, ?chew gum, take a drink of Pepsi and kiss me goodbye.?

   ?You keep them outside your teeth so you don't swallow them,? Deem said. ?That's the way we did it ? spit tacks all day. Then came the staple gun, and that was the end of tacks. But once you learn it, you never forget it.?

   He used the skill to entertain visiting children at the UI's furniture shop, and he still uses it for repairs from time to time, if he is away from his shop and the air compressor that powers the staple gun.

   ?I'm real glad I learned how to do it because it's handier than the dickens, if you're out and you don't have your tools,? he said.

   Deem used to reupholster seats for antique cars, airplanes and wheelchairs, but he now sticks to furniture. Recently he was working on a chair for a customer in Champaign.

   After the staples, fabric and stuffing are removed from a piece of furniture, Deem reglues any parts of the frame that are loose, adds padding where it's needed, repairs the springs if necessary and recovers it with fabric.

   He's also working on patio chairs for Dorothy.

   ?I had to wait until he retired,? she said. ?I told him the first thing he had to do was my patio furniture.?

   Several of their children inherited their parents' love of working with their hands.

   ?All of us learned how to be builders of some sort,? said Charles Deem, a project manager at the UI's Division of Planning, Construction and Maintenance and David's second-oldest son. ?I was always his No. 1 helper. We'd always go somewhere to do something together, go lay carpet or build a deck.?

   Charles worked with his father at the UI's furniture shop, repairing furniture on the woodworking side before his father reupholstered it.

   ?Watching him take something that somebody was going to throw away and bring it back to a brand-new piece of furniture was pretty awesome,? he said, calling the quality of his father's work ?top notch.?

   He said his father taught him and his siblings the value of hard work and doing a job right.

   ?He would say, in the construction business, when people are needing the work done is when you do it. You don't put it off. You do the work when it needs to be done,? Charles said. ?I'm trying to teach my son the same thing.

   ?No matter what we needed, he was there, even though he worked a lot,? he continued. ?He raised five kids, and all of us had what we needed and wanted and didn't do without anything. Now, raising two boys, I wonder how he did it, and I respect him a lot for it.?

   In his retirement, Deem will have time for teaching again. He taught upholstery classes through the Urbana Adult Education program for 30 years, and at Parkland College as well. He gave it up when he got too busy, but Dorothy has been urging him to teach again.

   ?I've got some knowledge that is being lost,? he said. ?It's a dying art.?


You can reach Jodi Heckel at (217) 351-5216 or via e-mail at jheckel@news-gazette.com.