Berkshires Week: M Designs sustains art of reupholstery

By Brian Mastroianni, Berkshire Eagle Staff
First published August 15, 2013

The interior of reupholstery and design business M Designs in Sheffield, Mass. Photo credit: Brian Mastroianni

The interior of reupholstery and design business M Designs in Sheffield, Mass. Photo credit: Brian Mastroianni

SHEFFIELD –– Stacks of colorful binders full of fabric and design samples line the walls of M Designs Custom Sewing and Re-upholstery in Sheffield. It’s a kaleidoscopic array of colors all mixed together — reds, golds and regal blues combine to make an eclectic, makeshift tapestry.

An older couple walks into the store, and the pair is greeted with a friendly hello from owner Michael Subklew.

“I have this chair that is bonded leather, and it’s peeling — I don’t know what’s wrong or how to fix it,” said the older man, wearing a dark blue baseball hat with “United States Marines” proudly emblazoned on its front.

Subklew knows what to do. He asks the couple to come back with a photo of the chair so that he can properly assess how to restore it. He then lists potential problems with the chair and explains how he could fix it. It feels like listening to a doctor’s prognosis — this is what is wrong with this particular piece of furniture, and here are the steps you need to take to revive it.

This desire to find the beauty in things that are fading away has driven Subklew all his life. With the reupholstery trade stretching back to his family’s roots in Europe, Subklew learned how to strip and refurbish furniture from his parents, who owned Kent Upholstery, the earlier incarnation of M Designs in Kent, Conn. He also learned how to sew from his grandmother, which fostered within him a love of clothing design.

Subklew went to college in Miami and worked there as a nurse. While working as a nurse he met his partner of 18 years, Rudy Molina, a physician. Dissatisfied because he was not pursuing his creative passions, Subklew moved back to New England to take over the family business, running what was then called D & M Designs with his mother, before taking over the business himself.

Today, Subklew fits both his family trade and his interest in design into his life. He runs M Designs with a business partner, Jose Lucas Barriales, while pursuing his dream to make his mark on the fashion world. Subklew has auditioned five times for Lifetime’s popular design reality show, “Project Runway.” He has made it past the preliminary audition phase, and he plans on auditioning again this spring.

“It’s a complicated process, where you are talking about thousands of people going into auditions. There were about 2,800 people at the last round,” Subklew said. “I know I could rock that show, absolutely.”

Subklew is an artist proud of his ability to transform everything from a drab chair to a dress and make it his own.

He has also dabbled in interior decorating.

“I’ve done some celebrity homes that you just can’t say no to, but it’s hard when you own the company that produced the products for interior design, which is a lot of work on its own, and then have to go and do the decorating side of it,” Subklew said.

How does he balance both? He said that he just has to “make it work,” as “Project Runway’s” Tim Gunn often says.

What helps Subklew make everything work is his staff of upholsterers and design consultants. M Designs employs 16 full-time workers, many of whom are immigrants to the United States who have learned a new trade. Subklew has something of an unofficial reupholstery school in Sheffield. He said he has taught his team “a dying art.”

One who has reinvented himself through M Designs is Barriales. Born and raised in Spain, Barriales was a biochemist researcher at Queen’s College in New York. He left for a quieter pace of life. A friend of Subklew’s for 12 years, Barriales was looking for a career change and eventually became Subklew’s business partner.

“I was confined to a closed space, and got bored of doing that kind of research,” Barriales said.

While Barriales handles the office management and sales side of things, he said it is inspiring to work alongside the M Designs team.

“It is a real skill. They are very proud of what they do,” Barriales said. “It’s a great feeling to have a piece and bring it back to life.”

For Subklew, bringing pieces of furniture back to life is in his blood — a skill set in which he is confident.

“In my mind I consider myself to be the most famous person I know,” Subklew joked. “But I think everyone should feel that way. If you walk out the door in the morning and put on the best face possible, have the best attitude and just go for it, you feel like the king.”

If you go …
What: M Designs Custom Sewing and Re-upholstery
When: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; Saturdays and Sundays by appointment.
Where: 44 South Main St., Sheffield.
Information: (413) 229-0404 or mdesignscustominteriors.com

Our favorite grouch: Andy Rooney (1919-2011)

-via The Hollywood Reporter

“Not many people in this world are as lucky as I have been,” said 60 Minutes commentator and resident grouch Andy Rooney at the beginning of his final appearance on the weekly news magazine. “I had an English teacher who told me I was a good writer,” he said, “so I set out to become a writer myself.” In his own eyes, Rooney was less TV icon than wry editorialist commenting on the mundane things that so often preoccupy all of us in our daily lives. But, for the millions who tuned in each and every week to hear his grumblings over the absurdities of modern life, Rooney was more than just a “good writer.” He was in many ways the stand-in for his viewers, complaining about and questioning the things that many who watched him didn’t think to examine. Of course, Rooney’s career full of bluntness and bluster was not without controversy –– according to The New York Times, he was suspended by CBS News in 1990 for some controversial comments he made about African Americans and “homosexual unions.” If legendary CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite became America’s “Uncle Walter,” Rooney’s public image was more akin to that of the grumpy, opinionated (yet insightful) neighborhood grouch.

His absence has certainly been felt since he left 60 Minutes last month, but after death, his legacy will live on. CBS has compiled some of his most memorable commentaries online at 60 Minutes Overtime, and the irreverent “Andy Rooney Game” has become a popular Youtube meme. After decades on-air, Rooney will be immortalized by the digital age, sharing everyday wisdom, and grumbling away while he does it.

In a bad economic climate, who can we trust? The Muppets!

The Muppets make sense of the economy. -via ABC News

On my Twitter feed today, I found this vintage Nightline video posted by ABC News. Originally aired on December, 6, 1987, the Ted Koppel-hosted special was designed as a town hall meeting of sorts to try to make sense of the economic recession of the day. Joining Koppel as special correspondents are none other than The Muppets. While it’s a funny video in which everyone’s favorite anthropomorphic Jim Henson animals define terms like “bull and bear markets,” it’s also an interesting time capsule of sorts. By watching the video, one can easily draw parallels between the kind of late-80s news coverage this exemplifies, and the headlines we all see today when we turn to our current 24/7 online and cable TV news sources. It’s also really interesting to look at some of the facts presented in the report, especially when Kermit mentions that the national debt is at “2.4 trillion dollars” –– today, our current national debt is roughly 14.9 trillion dollars. In one funny portion, Kermit, our ever-trusty anchorman, asks Fozzy to stack up in dollar bills our national debt. “If you stack up this money, how tall a stack is it going to be?” Kermit asks. “130,000 miles,” Fozzy replies.

With Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzy, and co. releasing a new film later this month, perhaps The Muppets can come back to our evening newscasts and help make sense of today’s often-gloomy headlines? Check out the ABC clip here.

Long live the television news magazine

via TV Guide

Last night, NBC News debuted Rock Center with Brian Williams, the network’s younger, hipper answer to CBS’ venerable 60 Minutes. As far as first episodes go, the new program was a solid success, showcasing the wry humor and authority of its anchor, while giving corresepondents like Kate Snow, Richard Engel, and Harry Smith (former anchor of The Early Show on CBS) a chance to shine with long-form features and in-depth interviews.

It’s the kind of journalism I personally enjoy watching and working on –– when a reporter spends a sustained period of time with his or her subject, giving the audience the opportunity to really feel invested in the personal narratives that fuel the story. As opposed to the traditional evening newscasts on ABC, NBC, and CBS, or even their cable news cousins, long-form broadcast news magazines like 60 Minutes are so fantastic in their ability to avoid the desire of a tweet-fueled modern news cycle to send out information immediately before journalists really have time to fully get to the heart of a story. It’s kind of like deciding to sit down with a good 500-page book over watching its hour and a half film version. While the acting and visual splendors of a film might offer more immediately-satisfying entertainment, it is never as enjoyable for me as sitting down on a lazy Sunday afternoon and getting lost in the detailed world described by the book’s author. I find that, generally speaking, a novel will dedicate more time than a film will in revealing the characters’ back stories and personal motivations.

I think the same is true of news magazines. Whether profiling a war criminal, politician, movie star, or the average American struggling to search for employment, or heading to the scenes of natural disasters and war zones, these kinds of programs devote more time to communicating the realities behind the news of the day. Obviously, I’m not alone in my appreciation of this kind of programming. According to The Hollywood Reporter, this past Sunday’s edition of 60 Minutes –– featuring a much-publicized interview with Bernie Madoff’s wife and son –– attracted its highest overall audience in a year. Similarly, ABC’s late-night news program, Nightline, routinely does better in the ratings than both Leno and Letterman.

As far as whether Williams’ new show can live up to that kind of success and the gold standard of 60 Minutes, the verdict is still out. However, what we have seen so far is promising. While the show did not light up the ratings (it performed worse than the canceled Mad Men wannabe The Playboy Club), it presented some compelling stories and a funny (if a little awkward and out-of-place) live interview with fake anchor Jon Stewart. The show still needs to find its footing, but I’ll be watching next week.