Amanda Brown’s eyes sparkle as she recalls her very earliest adventures in interior design while sharing a bedroom with her twin sister, everything split exactly down the middle. “I was like, ‘Don’t let your shelf space touch my shelf space!’ I would arrange my shelves with stuffed animals and books and make these little vignettes,” she says with a smile. “I was always tinkering and arranging and rearranging my room.”
Unsurprisingly, her house is a treasure trove of keepsakes collected over the years, set against vibrant colors and patterns. An almost altar-like scene is created from a floral embroidered panel, a Hotel Saint Cecilia print, a silver tray of liqueurs, and cluster of vintage milk glass and jadeite bottles. A sequin wreath in the making shimmers atop an emerald green diamond tufted cocktail ottoman.
“I think it was just in me to do something with my hands. It’s so much more fulfilling to create something yourself than to purchase it.”
Her fireplace is crafted from travertine salvaged from the LBJ Library, and the floor made from a blend of recycled furniture– which couldn’t be more appropriate for Brown, the proprietor of Spruce Upholstery.
The stars of her living space are certainly the furniture pieces that she’s given new life – such as a rust-hued vintage couch tossed with beautifully contrasting teal velveteen pillows, or the dragon-adorned armchair which also graces the cover of Amanda’s first book, a step-by-step guide to upholstery released this past fall before a 10-city book tour.
“I think it was just in me to do something with my hands,” says Brown, whose mother and grandmother are both talented seamstresses. “I think it’s just so much more fulfilling to create something yourself than to just purchase it.”
Brown studied architecture at Texas Tech before switching to interior design, only to find that it wasn’t exactly what she expected. “It was a lot of drafting– it was more like interior architecture,” says Brown. “It was less of the decorating and the textiles and the colors, which is really what I wanted to be involved with. And I think architecture was most helpful for the actual construction side of upholstery, making a lot of models and seeing how geometric shapes come together.”
It was freshman year when Brown tried her hand at her first pseudo-upholstery project. “We had a suite-style dorm room and we bought this old sofa from a Salvation Army kinda store,” she remembers. “It was $10 and hideous – it had stains all over it – and we went and bought like 15 yards of fabric from Walmart, the only fabric store in Lubbock, and we safety pinned all the fabric to the sofa. We didn’t even do the back because we figured we’d just push it against the wall!”
“When I get an old piece of furniture, I just think about what life it’s had before.”
When Brown transferred to UT her junior year, she switched her major to art history. “I love art history specifically because I think it’s really crazy that you can be in front of something that was made by hand two thousand years ago,” she expresses. “It’s like time travel. You’re standing in front of it and someone else was standing in front of it two thousand years ago, chipping away and sculpting it or painting it. So that history is really fascinating to me, and when I get an old piece of furniture, I just think about what kind of life it’s had before. And stripping it and seeing what’s inside of it and knowing that someone upholstered it 50 years ago and here I am touching it again and redoing it– I really geek out on that part.”
While at UT, a fire ravaged the garage apartment she was renting behind a historic mansion on Judge’s Hill. “I didn’t have that much, but for someone in college, it was devastating– all just gone,” says Brown. Luckily, she was covered by insurance, but had a limited amount of time to replace her belongings.
“I ended up with this whole house of IKEA, which just felt so impersonal,” she says. “I was so infatuated with finding all these little treasures and trinkets and little things that I thought had cool history and potential and patina and then I went to all brand new stuff.”
She slowly started to sell the new items on Craigslist and replace them with older pieces, then enrolled in an upholstery class at ACC. “I just hate the thought of getting something that has no personality and no history,” explains Brown. “Although you can get something with no personality and give it personality, so there’s that.”
Right after college, Brown managed an art gallery in town for a couple years, then worked in development, writing grants and securing corporate sponsorships for the Austin Symphony. Meanwhile, her upholstery habit was growing into more than a hobby. She started taking on projects and then leading some classes at a store called Homegirls, then decided to take the plunge and open Spruce in 2007.
With only six months of experience in the upholstery business,
“There were many times where I was on the edge of a breakdown…It helped hearing that there are lots of failures and challenges but that it does pan out.”
Brown and her business partner at the time, Lizzie Joyce, knew they were taking a big risk. Brown describes working strenuous 80 hour weeks, focused on a single piece of furniture they’d finally sell at the end of the week, only to cash in the check and buy supplies for the next project.
“We were spending way too much time in production to be bringing in the money that we needed to,” says Brown. “It wound up being a really big lesson in discipline and being so conscious of how we were spending our time. It was like cracking the whip on ourselves. We cannot meet people in these hours. We cannot talk or do anything but production. We have to be nose to the grind from this hour to this hour.”
Brown’s husband Keith, a master arborist, let her use part of his warehouse for the first year Spruce was in business. Then a large order from Liz Lambert for the Hotel Saint Cecilia allowed Brown to get her own space on North Lamar.
“My husband has been such a huge mentor as far as a business owner,” says Brown. “I don’t know that I would have been able to stick it through if I didn’t have him, with his experience, telling me that it gets better. There were just so many times where I was on the edge of a breakdown but he had all the experience and he knows the cycle, so it helped just hearing that from someone and knowing that there are lots of failures and lots of challenges but that it does pan out.”
Spruce started picking up custom upholstery orders for more and more individuals and local businesses, like Trace at the W Hotel, Beet’s Cafe, P. Terry’s on William Cannon, and St. David’s emergency room, to name a few. And these days Brown has a team of seven “Sprucettes” so she no longer works in production, which gave her time to create her first book, film tutorials for Creative Bug, and blog for Design Sponge and HGTV. Her house is also going to be featured in the March issue of HGTV magazine.
“I actually can’t believe that Spruce is where it is,” says Brown. “There were so many years in the beginning where we didn’t make any money. It was just like- how are we going to sustain this? It was so much work.”
During her recent three week book tour across the South, Brown was floored by the fans she met in each of the 10 cities they visited. “It was really fun and fascinating to me that we have people that read our blog in Tennessee- or anywhere else really!” she says. “It’s so rewarding to see people face to face and talk to them and hear their stories.” And Brown, even at seven months pregnant, led classes in lampshade and bench upholstery in each city with the help of Sprucette Katherine Baronet. (And in true DIY fashion, Brown returned to Austin and gave birth to her daughter at home at the start of the new year!)
This March, new classes will be starting up once again at Spruce. Brown recommends starting with a lampshade class. “Lampshade is definitely the easiest, and I think one of the most fun things because it’s instant gratification,” she says. In the meantime, Brown suggests checking out Creative Bug for her tutorials on making headboards, lampshades, stools, and a cocktail ottoman with storage.
“If someone wants to start getting more hands on in the new year and start doing DIY projects, they should go to that website,” suggests Brown. “Because you can learn anything and it starts very small scale, which I think is always a better way to start something.”
Take it from someone who knows a thing or two about starting small and thinking big! Let that be your inspiration for 2014.
This article originally published in The Renew Issue of Citygram Austin Magazine [January 2014].
Explore the full issue on your desktop here or download the FREE mobile issue designed specifically for your iPhone or iPad in the App Store today.
Food & Beverage Columnist
Veronica Meewes is a freelance writer and photographer in Austin, TX.
Specializing in lifestyle, travel and food her work has appeared in several outlets including Forbes Travel Guide, Serious Eats, and The Today Show.
Veronica spent her childhood in New Jersey, and traveled around the country before deciding on the sunny capital of Texas.