Little Black Dressed

October 9, 2015

Carlsen Center coordinator upcycles 47 office chairs into dressing-room seating, saving the college thousands over new

Fans of “Flea Market Flip” and Pinterest posts should love this. All it took to save Johnson County Community College more than $26,000 in furniture costs was a frugal manager, a willing warehouse staff and some black fabric.

Tamara Kingston, facilities scheduling coordinator for the Carlsen Center, wanted to replace the chairs in the dressing rooms that serve the theatres at JCCC. But, with budgets as they are, she was told “maybe next year.”

The current chairs were aged and unstable, not to mention just downright tired-looking. “I mean, this is a 25-year-old facility,” Kingston said.

Inspiration strikes

She decided to call the Warehouse, where JCCC’s surplus furniture and equipment are stored. “Do you have any chairs?” she asked warehouse supervisor Michael Myers.

“Do I have chairs!” Myers responded. “How many do you need?”

Kingston did a quick count and asked for 30. Thirty black office-style chairs were delivered in near-new condition.

“You know, we have more of these,” Myers told Kingston. How many exactly? Oh, 47 in total.

Another department on campus had ordered the chairs for a computer lab, but they weren’t comfortable enough for long periods of time in front of a screen.

For putting on makeup, getting in and out of costumes or hanging out backstage, however, the chairs were fine. Aesthetically, they were a big step up from the tan-and-beige tweed chairs that were probably as old – or older – than many of the students on campus.

“Bring them all over,” Kingston said. “We’ll use them.”

Work begins

Kingston created a pattern for a slipcover and worked with an associate to sew one for every chair. Not only do the slipcovers hide the slight bit of wear and tear, but they also shield the chair from artist who sits in it.

“The slipcovers protect the chair from make-up, and we get dancers in here who are all hot and sweaty, so we can just throw the covers in the wash,” she said.

Besides, every theatergoer knows the importance of a black tuxedo or a little black dress. Why not outfit the chairs in the same ensemble?

While the chairs were being delivered, Kingston said she felt pretty good about saving the college some money. “These chairs must be, what, $200 apiece?” she asked Paul Knoettgen, warehouse and postal services associate.

Knoettgen scoffed. “Try more like $600 apiece,” he said.

For a chair? Kingston could hardly believe it. In fact, she copied down the manufacturer’s make and model number and went online to see for herself.

“Sure enough, they were more than $600 a chair,” she said.

Jay Antle, executive director for the Center for Sustainability, said this project was a great example “of the growing importance of reuse at JCCC.”

He said the warehouse is launching a new internal reuse database where people will be able to see more easily what is available for on-campus use. “All of this keeps items out of the landfill and saves departments money,” he said.

Sense of pride

Materials for all the slipcovers cost just under $250. Any good backstage shop already has a great sewing machine. From there, it was just a matter of squeezing in sewing time around Kingston’s other duties.

“And I love to sew,” she said.

For Kingston, the project wasn’t just a chance to reuse or “upcycle,” though she’s a big fan of the practice.

Instead, it was to instill in the performers that same sense of pride in JCCC that she possesses.

In fact, before working at the Carlsen Center, Kingston graduated with her associate degree from JCCC. She received multiple theatre-department and Foundation scholarships and calls JCCC her second home.

“Performers have been to some shabby places,” she said. “But it doesn’t have to be this place – my ‘home,’ after all.”