+ By Zoë Nardo Photos by Alison Harbaugh

A few miles from downtown Annapolis, one will find Tallulah Bankhead shimmering in luscious Zoffany velvet, Romeo and Juliette complementing each other with their matching medallions and tassels, and Elvis Paisley draped in a funky paisley print trimmed in turquoise. These are only a handful of the personalities and personas that have been crafted over the years by high-end furniture designer Monica Cortright. “I really get to know each piece that I design, and once it’s finished, I name it, and it comes to life,” she says. “Chairs are people, too.”

Cortright, who is referred to by some as the Chair Whisperer, started designing one-of-a-kind furniture after inheriting two chairs that needed new reupholstery from her father six years ago. “I wanted to design something special and dedicate them to him,” she says. “The designs had to be as unique and wonderful as he was.” After unveiling what she refers to as “the chair experiment” to her family and friends, the uproar of praise and demand for more chairs motivated her to officially start her company, Monica Cortright Designs. In Annapolis, where seersucker fabrics and anchor embroidery are the more common decors, Cortright’s designs stand apart from the nautical norm by boasting exotic patterns, overlapping vibrant colors, and ornate details dangling off of every wooden edge. Her favorite designer is Manuel Canovas, from Paris, whose work is instantly recognizable by its vivid, almost neon, colors and bold, in-your-face-patterns ranging from floral arrangements to the depiction of Prince Dara Skikoh’s wedding. But Cortright doesn’t only uses designer textiles. A few years ago, she used fabric from a pair of vintage shorts that she bought in the1980s on San Francisco’s Haight Street as upholstery on armchair tops. Whatever the chair needs, the chair gets. 

Where an average person might overlook an old chair because of a broken leg or its blemishes, Cortright would likely be drawn to its untapped beauty and unknown personality. Peeling varnish, missing pieces, or deflated cushions are only minor speed bumps in Cortright’s journey when creating each of her signature designs. “It gives me absolute joy, taking old pieces that need a new life and totally giving them a new one,” she says. When her friend, the founder of the world’s largest Rolling Stones fan group, asked her to create a custom chair based on the album Beggars Banquet, she dusted off the 1968 record for inspiration and began stripping the varnish off of a dilapidated chair as the record spun. Cortright sourced fabric with the same graffiti as walls on the controversial, alternate album cover, bought old tour shirts off of eBay to use as arm covers, and then topped off the design with a custom-made Union Jack pillow. The finished project renders a throne that Mick Jagger would be flattered to sit upon.

Designing isn’t something that’s new to Cortright, as she’s always had a way of letting her imagination and rock and roll personality run rampant from her fingertips. After getting her degree in theater and costume design, Cortright designed for her first and only off-Broadway play but quickly realized that she wanted to design more than costumes. This led her to design jewelry, children’s clothing, and home decor, but she still felt unsatisfied. Today, designing one-of-a-kind furniture perfectly fits the bill, and she wakes up every morning eager to get to her studio. Her background in theater and costume design still fuels how she approaches each new piece. “With costume design, you design for the character in the play, and that’s exactly what I do with my chairs,” she says. 

The fabric chosen for the backrest might differ from the headrest, which could differ from the armrest and seat, but they all come together as an elegant, never-before-seen costume. Because each distinct pattern or texture blends with the next one in such beautiful juxtaposition, Cortright has begun saying that fusing all these elements together is her superpower. 

As any designer will tell you, the beauty is in the details, and Cortright’s work is no different. Nearly every chair wears tassels that dangle from the armrest or the headrest and, in Cortright’s mind, are seen as its jewelry, and the pillows that Cortright designs are perceived as the piece’s hat. The characters in Cortright’s play these days, much like those in her off-Broadway show, have costume changes. The pillows and the seat are always fashioned to have an alternate pattern on the opposite side in the event that an outfit change is warranted. A fancy embroidered cambric, the fabric under the chair, is the last touch before the project’s completion, and Cortright refers to it as the chair’s sexy lingerie. “You look at a chair and you just don’t expect it to be dressed up and ready to go to a party,” says Cortright. “And my chairs are dressed up and ready to go.”

Whenever she gets a new chair, whether it’s from an estate sale, auction, or high-end dealer, she immediately brings it to her Annapolis studio and sits with the chair to soak in its personality. Her studio walls are lined with colorful Indian saris and many spools of fabric from all over the world. The tables are covered with braided, woven, and fringed trim or gimp, and heaps of high-style prints and woven samples lay everywhere else. She begins by laying and pinning fabric on each part of the chair, and then she will take her planning to paper. Cortright meticulously draws and specs out each chair so that when she takes it to one of her master upholsterers there aren’t any questions. Over the years, she’s curated a long list of seamstresses and upholsterers who make her designer dreams a physical reality. Sometimes a chair will go to the artisan several times because something isn’t just right, but when Cortright goes to pick up her finished piece for the first time, she describes the feeling as comparable to a child on Christmas morning. And then, after all the trial and error, she might have a tough time finalizing the sale. “Sometimes it’s hard to say goodbye,” says Cortright. “It’s more like an adoption than a sale.”

In the last six years, Cortright has named dozens of pieces and used well over 200 different fabrics, tassels, buttons, and trims to build Monica Cortright Designs. In 2019, her chairs were shown in windows on Main Street in downtown Annapolis, and she plans to open a showroom in Annapolis sometime this year. Until then, she will continue to create custom statement pieces such as Elvis Paisley in her studio and find the perfect office or home for them to live in. █

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