Strolling down Hamilton Avenue, you might not notice Helltown Workshop at first. Tucked down an alley between Chicken Lays An Egg and the spot where Tickle Pickle is opening soon, it would be all too easy to breeze past their colorful, geometric sign on the gate to the alley. Which would be a true shame, because inside Helltown Workshop owner Helen Smith is doing some very cool things to give old furniture new life. You’ve probably sat on her handiwork at one of the numerous Northside restaurants or bars like Melt and Northside Tavern for which she’s done upholstery. Or you may have seen some of her work featured on DIY Network’s Sledgehammer, a demolition home makeover show which is filmed locally (and not to be confused with the 1980’s Dirty Harry spoof show Sledgehammer!, which if you haven’t seen is worth a quick trip to Youtube).
A granddaughter of antique dealers, Helen has been dabbling in upholstery since she was a teenager. Though she never expected to make it her business and actually focused more on sewing clothes in earlier days, her knack for upholstery led her to start taking jobs out of her Northside home. “I could be of better use,” Helen reflected of her decision to focus on upholstery, “because everyone needs furniture.” Word-of-mouth recommendations along with her clearly-evident attention to detail led to more and more business. Tired of having tacks and staples scattered around her living room, Helen started working out of a Hamilton Avenue space next to Fabricate before moving Helltown Workshop to it’s current location four years ago.
Helen’s ever-growing client base and great reputation has even led to an exciting brush with fame. Last year, Helltown Workshop was recruited to upholster historically-accurate furniture for a new Miles Davis biopic called Miles Ahead. The film, written, directed and starring Don Cheadle, is slated for release this October. Filming happened throughout Cincinnati, largely because the Queen City still retains the character that New York had in the 1950s. Helen upholstered a number of pieces for the movie, including a pair of boxy, mod chairs on shiny, chrome bases which feature an eye-popping vintage print. The interlocking black and white pattern was admittedly complex to work with. “It was challenging to match up the prints,” Helen laughs, “but it’s nice to have a challenge sometimes, and push yourself.”
Helen’s not afraid to take on a challenging piece of furniture, and seems to truly relish the process of transformation that happens through upholstery. When pieces come in, they might be damaged, with old foam cushions that have turned to dust, or springs that poke out at odd angles. Upholstery keeps these pieces out of the waste stream, and helps their superior craftsmanship to live on. “Old furniture was made so well and so sturdy that it will last forever,” Helen says. “Now things are all particle board and plastic legs,” but if it’s a family heirloom, “something from your grandma that you love, getting it reupholstered is worth it.” If there’s a piece gathering dust in your attic in need of a makeover, Helltown Workshop provides free estimates on labor and fabric yardage via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can check out pictures on their Facebook page at Helltown Workshop Northside, or on their website at helensmithupholstery.com.
Photogrgaphs by Peter Stevens Photography