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How to Restore a Vintage MCM Desk Chair

Vintage midcentury modern furniture is hot – really hot. But one challenge of bringing authentic vintage MCM furniture into your home is the grime of used furniture – especially MCM upholstered items. After a little experimentation, I’ve discovered that many upholstered mid-century pieces can be restored without having to reupholster. Discover my method below.

In five steps, I took these midcentury desk chairs from thrift store “ew,” to the perfect additions to my new office space in St. Louis.

Two midcentury modern office chairs

In this post, I show how I recently tackled a rehab project of a pair of Steelcase mid-century modern desk chairs from ratty to radiant. Restoring these chairs only took about 30 minutes each and resulted in a stunning pair of stylish, comfortable, and clean desk chairs for my office.

Here’s how I restored these chairs with no need to reupholster:

What you’ll need:

This may sound like a big shopping list for cleaning a chair, but so worth it for the ability to restore an old office chair to an almost new condition. If you’re missing one or two of the supplies you can substitute with something similar – like, a lot of elbow grease can replace the drill with the scrub brush attachment (but the drill-chuck scrub brushes are a fun cleaning tool you’ll find many uses for!), and If you have a wet-dry shop vac you can manually soak, agitate, and vacuum excess moisture from the upholstery instead of using the carpet spot cleaner.

Vaccuum Visible Debris

Use a vacuum to vacuum up crumbs or debris on upholstered surfaces of the chair. Getting loose debris-free helps the wet portion of this chair rehab tutorial work more efficiently.

Use detailing attachments to clean nooks and crannies

Where the upholstery cushion meets armrests, upholstery folds, tufts, or buttons, use a detailing attachment for your vacuum to get in deep and remove loose debris.

I scored my vacuum detailing attachments from the Goodwill Outlet for pennies, but you can grab a similar set here on Amazon (it has 1000 uses, and even can work as a precision blower to replace canned air for cleaning electronics! Just use a shop vac configured to blow instead of suck air through the hose)

Use a fabric shaver to remove pills from fabric

This is my favorite part because it has such a dramatic effect on worn upholstery: using a fabric shaver (like this one– typically sold for refreshing old sweaters). Run the fabric shaver over the surface of the desk chair’s upholstery.

The shaver will pick up pills or loose fibers and leave behind a smooth almost new-looking surface. Just check out the before and after in the video!

Scrub the plastic body

Many MCM office chairs have a molded plastic body on the underside. The texture of this plastic can capture and hold a lot of grime. The best way I have found to remove it is by using TikTok’s favorite cleaner, the pink stuff.

Smear Pink Stuff paste on the plastic and scrub in to remove stains and discoloration from deep in the texture of the plastic. A cordless drill with brush attachment definitely made this faster but isn’t strictly necessary if you’re willing to use a little bit of elbow grease.

Avoid getting the pink stuff on polished metal surfaces, as it can leave faint scratches due to the abrasiveness.

Wash the fabric cushions using a carpet cleaner with hose

Fill your carpet cleaner with cleaning solution at the recommended dilution, and follow the manufacturer’s instructions to clean the surface of the upholstery of the chair.

It may be helpful to presoak the desk chair, wait 10 or 15 minutes, and then return to agitate and suction up the now-soiled solution.

I find it so satisfying to see the clear cleaning solution spray onto the upholstery of a vintage piece of furniture and suck back up through the suction hose as a brownish discolored liquid. This part requires the hardest labor- really digging the hose deep into the fabric to agitate and remove dirt, stains, and debris makes a different- but the results are so worth it!

Polish Metal

As the last step, use a soft cloth and a gentle metal polish to restore a just-off-the-showroom shine to any exposed metal of the chair. For Steelcase chairs, this often includes the armrests and the steel chair base.

Check and Repair Wheels

Flip your chair over, and make sure that each of the wheels is turning smoothly.

You may need to clean out dirt, gunk, or hair (ew!) from the chair’s casters if they are not spinning smoothly. A small amount of graphite (yes, even from the tip of a pencil!) can lubricate wheels without grease. If you have a wheel that’s still not quite working right, desk chair wheels are standardized and desk chair casters can be purchased on Amazon – (there’s even souped-up, extra-wheelie options!)

Let dry and enjoy

After you finished all of these steps, your restored MCM deaths chair is almost ready to use! Just place the chair in a well-ventilated area where the upholstery will dry completely. Once dry, enjoy the comfort and style of your newly restored enviable MCM office chair.

Two midcentury modern office chairs

Modern MCM vs Authentic Vintage Pieces: Why I Prefer Restoring MCM Furniture

There’s no shortage of MCM-style new furniture for sale. In fact, as an appreciator of a more transitional style, I find it hard to find anything but midcentury-inspired pieces now. The real problem, however, is quality.

As I talked about in my tutorial on how to build a sawhorse table, with most new furniture, a higher price tag doesn’t mean higher quality. Furniture manufacturers- with the exception of very high end brands- are creating furniture with the cheapest materials possible. This furniture is designed to break or wear out, requiring replacement. A price tag often reflects international cargo shipping fees rather than the quality of the materials or labor invested in the piece.

This hasn’t always been the case, though. Older furniture, like the sturdy sort in every flea market and thrift store, was typically made to a much higher standard.

Vintage furniture and larger bodies

As a plus-size person, I’ve been really vexed to discover that vintage furniture consistently accommodates my larger frame better than modern furniture.

For me, those cute molded dining chairs are hard to trust with my full body weight, and a standard folding chair can dig painfully into my hips after a few minutes- Vintage furniture is almost always more spacious and sturdy.

Shopping for Plus Size Office Chairs

Plus size office chairs are often especially challenging to purchase. While the Internet has given us access to a wider variety of options for desk chairs for big and tall people, the same struggles are present: choosing between affordable low-quality products or really really expensive high-end big and tall desk chairs. Add style preference into the mix, and you can spend hours scouring the internet with no good options.

Steelcase is one of the chair brands that does make plus size office chairs- and while their current line offers chairs sizes specifically for larger bodies, their most popular office chair for plus size bodies runs a whopping $1,700 new. And while it’s hard to put a price on comfort while working, the fact that the chairs are hideously at odds with MCM, traditional, and transitions design doesn’t convince me to invest in one of their modern plus size desk chairs.

So when I saw a vintage Steelcase in a midcentury modern vintage furniture store about six months ago, with a modest price tag of $90, I decided to give it a shot – what could it hurt? It turns out, that 30-odd year old desk chair is more comfortable than any of the multi-hundred dollar desk chairs I’ve purchased in the preceding decade (and trust me, I’ve tried a lot). That chair made me a convert to scanning thrift stores for MCM Steelcase office furniture, for a more visually attractive and body-accommodating version of office furniture.

So that’s the back story to why, when I stumbled upon these oatmeal-colored MCM Steelcase desk chairs sitting soiled, pilled, and dusty in a thrift store last week- I rolled them to the register immediately, without even checking the rest of the store for treasures. At 15 bucks a pop, I knew these ultra heavy-duty chairs made by Steelcase somewhere between 1970 and 1990 were an absolute steal. (They’re identical to these chairs recently old on Chairish for $500/each! )

And that’s how I found myself tasked with restoring two gross MCM office chairs.

When I purchased them, they were pretty dirty and sad. The molded plastic backs had grime deeply embedded in the texture of the plastic, dirt was visible in the nooks between the armrests and cushion, and the steel frame featured questionable stains from unknown substances. However, after scrubbing, shaving, shampooing, and polishing, I’m thrilled with the eye-catching chairs I now feature in both my art studio and writing nook.

A vintage midcentury modern desk chair made by Steelcase office chairs.

A Step-by-step Guide to Restoring MCM Upholstered Office Chairs

total time 1 hour

Vacuum Visible Debris

Use detailing attachments to clean nooks and crannies

Use a fabric shaver to remove pills from the fabric

Scrub MCM chair’s plastic body

Wash the chair’s upholstery using a carpet cleaner with hose

Polish Metal Parts

Check and Repair Wheels

Enjoy!

Supply:

  • See Supply List

 

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