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Taking the time for new life; Furniture restoration and body building

John Roziak is an artist, a potter, a beekeeper, a body builder and he still takes an occasional reupholstering job, once his main line of work.
TRR photos by Amanda Reed

By Helena Clare Pittman
February 26, 2014

LIBERTY, NY — On a rural back road in Liberty there exists an unseen world.

Pull into the car park, turn off your engine, walk up a snowy path and step through a door. Now you’re standing amidst ranks of state-of-the-art workout equipment. This is the Flextime personal training studio. The place is world-class. You might have walked in from a street in mid-town Manhattan.

I interviewed John Roziak in an outbuilding across from the gym. We sat facing an industrial treadle sewing machine, vintage 1873. This machine was built to last. It’s motorized now, and Roziak uses it in his work, reupholstering furniture. Another machine stands next to it, one that stitches vinyl. “Upholstery picked me,” he says.

Roziak has been upholstering furniture for 40 years. As a young man with a new wife and a baby on the way he answered a newspaper want ad and began apprenticing at Muller’s, a local upholsterer. Apprenticeship is a lost way of life, Roziak tells me. “Almost slave labor,” he said. “But I learned from a master upholsterer. That doesn’t happen anymore.”

When he was skilled enough he began taking jobs on the side. He had the few tools he needed: spit tacks, a tack hammer, a sewing machine. “All you need,” he said. “You don’t need anything fancy. Nowadays people go to school, get a diploma, buy a lot of equipment. But the crafting isn’t there.”

After he worked for Muller’s, Roziak went into business on his own. He reupholstered for The Concord Hotel. Then Kenny Saltzman found him.

Saltzman owned Memories, the antique place on Route 17, one of the biggest collections of European antiques on the East Coast. Saltzman bought antique furniture by the crate, shipped to him from all over the world.

In the process of reupholstering chairs and couches for Saltzman, 50 to 60 a week, he learned about and studied the antique market. And, by dismantling the work of the upholsterers of times gone by, the workmanship of the masters he’d never meet, his understanding of the craft deepened.

“There are layers and layers that you have to peel back. Thousands of staples and tacks that have to come out. They had something we don’t have any more. They had time.” Sometimes he found pieces of paper tucked into a fold of fabric, a signature of the artisan of another time, another place, whose work he was taking apart.

Once Roziak reupholstered an emperor’s chair, made 2,600 years ago. He dismantled it, ivory tack by ivory tack. It was priced at $37,000. He’s never forgotten its crafting, its layers of old silks.