From restaurants to railcars, Lexington upholstery business has covered them all

vbroadus@herald-leader.comFebruary 23, 2014 

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    Blue Grass Upholstering, 724 National Avenue, (859) 233-0898

A good upholstery job doesn't always get the attention it deserves. People might say the sofa is comfortable or the fabric is beautiful, but they generally leave it at that.

But the work done by the McKenzie family's Blue Grass Upholstering has received high praise for decades from those familiar with it. The company has its hooks in some of the best-looking furniture in Kentucky and the country.

Even if you've never raised a glass in the salons of the Thoroughbred set or been invited to the governor's mansion for tea, you might have unknowingly sat on their work at a local restaurant.

After nearly 40 years on West Short Street — many more if you include time under the previous owner — Blue Grass Upholstering recently hauled its brass tacks and sample books across town to National Avenue, an area that's becoming something of a hub for the furniture trades.

Owner Mike McKenzie is thrilled about the move, especially now that it's over. For one thing, the business is closer to its customers.

"Eighty percent of our clientele is in 40502," McKenzie says. Another huge appeal of the new location is the shop next door: Morningside Woodcrafters. Owners Willy Brown and Shelby Reynolds' talents with furniture are widely recognized.

"We have a wonderful relationship with Morningside," McKenzie says. "Now if somebody brings in a chair and wants to change the finish, I'll call Willy, and he just walks across the parking lot. Before, customers had to drive from one place to another. So we save people a lot of gas money."

And if a customer wants fabric right away, McKenzie can send them around the corner to the Rag Peddler, which also recently moved to the neighborhood.

"Birds of a feather," McKenzie says.

McKenzie, 67, grew up in the business.

"My father was upholstering when I was born," he says. "All through high school, when I wanted some play money, Dad would say, 'There's a sofa that needs buttons, or arm panels.' And he showed me how to do each project."

A Henry Clay graduate, McKenzie didn't plan on a career as a craftsman. But in 1973, he joined his father, Paul, in business as McKenzie and Son (Mom had her hands in it, too). Their shop on Short Street was next door to Blue Grass Upholstering, which had been around since 1950; when it went up for sale the next year, McKenzie and Son became Blue Grass.

Now the son is the boss; dad has been retired for years but is never far away.

As far as the actual fabrication, little has changed from the early years, Mike McKenzie says. But the Internet has had a huge impact.

"When we started out, I was in the car all day long, lugging fabric books around for clients to thumb through."

Now customers can email him pictures and he can give quotes online. He rarely has to leave the office, and that saves him gas money, too.

To the manor bound

The shop has four employees, down from the nine it had in its heyday, the 1970s and 80s. In this IKEA age, there's a smaller market for quality upholstery.

On this February morning, Debra Cooksey is sewing cushion covers and Jerry Johns is hammering decorative tacks. Their kind of work is a "lost art," Kenny Clemmons says as he maneuvers around a chair. The others agree. Clemmons has been with Blue Grass the longest, about 13 years.

In the front room, an armchair has been dropped off and a headboard is awaiting pickup. A chair that's been repaired at Morningside next door is in for "recovery." In back, booths are being covered in faux leather for a new Paris restaurant, and 60 seats are being recushioned for the RJ Corman dinner train.

Over the whir of the sewing machine and the gentle hammering of tacks, you can hear the kachunk of the staple gun. That sound has been common in the business for years. But when Mike McKenzie was learning the trade at his father's knee, it was spit tacks, not staples, that held the material taut.

"That's becoming a long-gone art," says McKenzie, echoing Clemmons. "You had to put the tacks in your mouth and use the hammer that had a magnet on the end of it. You'd bring the hammer up and you learned to work those tacks with your tongue. We occasionally will get a request to use tacks, and Dad and I can still do it. It costs extra. That's just when you're wanting more authenticity."

About half of Blue Grass Upholstering's clientele are designers, who can be fussy about authenticity and overall quality. Jack Stith of Jack Stith & Associates has worked with the McKenzie family for 30 years. He won't accept a piece, he says, unless it looks as if it's going to Pennsylvania Avenue — that is to say, 1600.

Blue Grass "always does an excellent job," Stith says.

Here comes the real boss

On most days Paul McKenzie, 88, comes to the shop, accompanied by William — "the real boss." Paul likes to stay on top of things, while William stays underfoot — he's a Jack Russell terrier.

Paul, who was born on a farm where Brannon Crossing now stands (the doctor's fee was a bushel of pears), can remember far back into Lexington's well-upholstered past. He learned on the job, working for a company called Karpen Bros. before going into business on his own.

"My first shop in 1956 was where Rupp Arena's door is now," he says. Sleepy Head House furniture store was across the street; Paul did a lot of work for them.

Father and son start to reminisce about some of the company's memorable jobs. There have been the "money's no object" requests: Cover the walls in fabric — not that unusual, although a few of the walls were at Dolly Parton's Nashville estate. Another customer with deep pockets wanted all the furniture they'd done for him in one house duplicated for a second home a continent away.

Closer to home, "Dad has worked on phantom mares," says Mike McKenzie, referring to the statuesque contraptions used in breeding sheds. Paul upholstered what was essentially a 55-gallon drum with a head.

But topping them all might be a job done by Becky McKenzie, Paul's late wife, in the 1950s. On a contract with NASA, "she upholstered cushions for monkeys who were launched into space," her husband says proudly.

Vicki Broadus: (859) 231-3516.

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