From Trash to Treasure — Bringing a Vintage George Nelson Chair Back to Life

by Katy on January 26, 2014 · 14 comments

Before and after chair

I’m lucky enough to live in a neighborhood where I can mostly walk my errands, and I’m lucky enough to live in Portland, Oregon where people put their unwanted stuff in front of their homes. And I guess I’ll have to add that I’m lucky enough to live in a climate that has recently been experiencing day after day of sunny dry weather.

Why is all this relevant?

Because wintertime is normally a dormant season for free pile treasure hunting.

But I lucked out last week when I passed by the above midcentury chair while on my way to pick up dinner ingredients. Yes, the fabric was filthy, but it looked pretty superficial, and I liked the chair’s sturdy lines. I snapped a photo for my Instagram account in case someone else took it, and I told myself I would pick it up if it was still there on my way home from the store.

It was.

I follow a ton of midcentury furnishing sellers on Instagram as a way of honing my eye for hidden treasures, and a number of them follow me back. One of them identified the chair as a George Nelson, and a bit of internet searching further revealed the chair as a George Nelson for Herman Miller maple dining chair, which can sell for up to $1000 apiece.

I cannot oversell how disgusting the fabric was, but I own a Bissell rug shampooer, so I figured I would give it the ol’ college try. My first thought had been to reupholster the chair, but I know enough to preserve the original fabric of a valuable piece. I truly did not think I could get the fabric back to an un-disgusting state, as I thought a few of the ground in gummed-up stains were cigarette burns.

I went over the upholstery over and over (and over) again with the hand-held attachment, using Dollar Tree oxyclean in the Bissell’s sprayer. And slowly but surely the fabric brightened and came to resemble something I could sit on without cringing. Not perfect, but pretty damned close.


I even got out my Sonicare toothbrush for the particularly stubborn spots, using a demoted brush head.


I was truly amazed by how fantastic the chair looked after an hour of my patented elbow grease.

The wood was still kind of dirty, but I mixed up a mild soapy solution and wiped it down with a soft rag. I then rejuvenated the wood using my trusty bottle of Restore-A-Finish, which works wonders on vintage wood.

And here’s the newly freshened chair, all ready for a new owner. I have it up on Craigslist for $500, although I doubt that deep pocketed midcentury aficionados populate Portland as much as southern California and New York, so I may end up putting the chair up on eBay or Etsy. I do not relish the idea of shipping such a large piece, but apparently it’s not as difficult as it sounds. (Greyhound seems to be the preferred shipping method.)

Craigslist chair

Even if it does take awhile to sell, (it’s a decidedly specialized item) I’m happy to give it a home for as long as it takes.


Trash to treasure? It never gets old!

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

rosarugosa January 26, 2014 at 1:50 pm

Nice work Katie! The chair looks great, and I’ll be interested to see how the selling process goes. Good luck!


nebuchudnessar January 26, 2014 at 2:54 pm

What a beautiful chair, let us know when it sells 😉


Maria January 26, 2014 at 4:46 pm

Wow! That’s really impressive, Katy!


Maryanne January 26, 2014 at 4:57 pm

Amazing transformation! Hope you get the full $500!


Cheryl January 26, 2014 at 5:34 pm

Great find!


judy January 26, 2014 at 5:39 pm

Beautiful! Amazing what a lot of elbow grease can do!
Good luck with the sale.


Adrienne January 26, 2014 at 7:20 pm

Very, very cool!


Adrienne January 26, 2014 at 7:20 pm

Very, very cool!


Lisa January 26, 2014 at 7:28 pm

Great job & TY for the tip about using an old sonicare brush head – I will surely save mine now! 🙂


lynda January 27, 2014 at 12:42 am

From grody to gorgeous… congratulations!


Diane January 27, 2014 at 4:58 am

What a fantastic job you did bringing that beauty back to life. Wishing you good fortune in finding a buyer for it. I’d take it in a minute if I had the funds.


Kari January 27, 2014 at 6:02 am

Wow! What a transformation!

I have a few old pieces of furniture that could use a little revitalization and you’ve intrigued me with the Restor-A-Finish. I see it comes in several colors. Do you keep the different colors on hand or can the neutral be used on any color?



Katy January 27, 2014 at 9:24 am

I have a can of the neutral, and just use that for everything.



Kari January 27, 2014 at 12:17 pm

That’s what I wanted to hear! I think every piece I want to touch up is a different color.


coasting February 3, 2014 at 6:52 pm

What is surprising to me about this post is not that you picked up a chair someone was tossing out, not that you cleaned it up, not that you plan to sell it. What surprises me is that you figured out that it was not just a junky chair but something that was (when clean) worth real money. Or actually you knew a way to determine what it might be worth if in good condition.
Oh… I miss living in a real city with real people and real junk…


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