Now Reading
‘Upholsterer to the Stars’

‘Upholsterer to the Stars’

  • This story originally appeared at on March 20, 2024.
  • Photos by Rhonda Stone Proctor
Ralph Terwelp is pictured at his sewing and upholstery area.

Ralph Terwelp finds vintage stories from well-bolstered seats

Have you ever thought about the stories that your furniture could tell? Do you have a furniture piece that is your favorite and reminds you of some beautiful memories from past family events? Or is there a chair stored in your basement because it needs some repair work, and you keep postponing it for “one day?” Perhaps there is a favorite story about a person’s antics in a particular chair that makes everyone laugh.

Ralph Terwelp, the owner of Terwelp Upholstery Shop, believes every piece of furniture has a story to tell. He loves to meet families and listen to their stories about where the furniture came from and what makes the piece unique.

Terwelp has been an upholsterer for most of his life. His mother was a talented seamstress and upholsterer and taught him the business. After graduating from the University of Missouri in 1980, Terwelp discovered an adult education course on upholstery in Columbia. He was asked to teach the class since he knew how to make a well-bolstered seat.

“During one of my classes, I had a lady and her daughter working on a family heirloom, a child’s rocker,” Terwelp says. “When they removed the old fabric, a ring fell out of it. They were so excited and shared how the ring had been lost and how finding it was a great surprise. Although we often encounter strange things when disassembling furniture, such as loose change, Legos, popcorn, and even toenails, this find was unique.”

Ralph Terwelp demonstrates how to keep the fabric pulled tight.
Ralph Terwelp demonstrates how to keep the fabric pulled tight.

Terwelp taught for almost 20 years and quickly realized that he could get paid to finish students’ projects. This realization was the beginning of Terwelp launching his own business.

The Terwelp family started their upholstery business in their home in the Parkade subdivision area. They hired local teenagers to work for the business. However, with the expansion of Ralph’s outreach and growing reputation, the business outgrew the location. He relocated his store to downtown Columbia and soon had ten employees.

The Terwelps were always busy, but they eventually moved the company to their new house to start preparing for retirement.

“I realized that I was spending more time working for others than enjoying my work,” he says. “My days were full of going to homes to do quotes, and my evenings and nights were taken up on the actual work. This is a demanding profession that takes time to perfect and dedication to get it right.”

As you enter Terwelp’s upholstery shop, you will see bookcases lining the walls displaying neatly arranged rows of fabric skeins. There’s also a workshop area where you’ll find various attachments hanging from the ceiling and different projects placed throughout the space. Terwelp, an experienced upholsterer of forty-four years, regards upholstery as a lost art form. Although he has taught several people how to do it, he believes that it’s like teaching someone to paint a masterpiece – their artwork will always differ from yours. The key to good upholstery is to pull the fabric tightly and have a good understanding of the fabric being used.

Terwelp looks back on his work over the years and reminisces about some of the pieces he has done. He shows pictures on his phone as he talks.

“Probably my most challenging piece was a real zebra pelt that my client wanted to use to cover a chair,” he explains. “Having to hide any holes or imperfections used all my creativity and imagination.”

He also mentions other pieces, including a sofa made from the trunk area of a 1952 Plymouth and a chair made from horns. In Terwelp’s opinion, the most difficult material to work with is Bouclé, a nubby-textured fabric that must be doubled or even tripled up, making it a challenge to sew.

Terwelp never imagined that his profession would make him famous, but he has become known by a nickname that he finds amusing. He recounts his experience.

“I once attended a wedding reception in Black Oak, Arkansas, where I was seated at a table with members of the Ozark Mountain Daredevil band,” he recalls. “The singer asked us to introduce ourselves. When it was my turn, I introduced myself as an upholsterer, and someone at the table recognized me and referred to me as the ‘Upholsterer to the Stars.’ That just tickled me.”

Terwelp has worked with prominent families all over the country and has had the privilege of working with several First Ladies of Missouri. When a new governor is elected, they are allowed to redecorate some of the rooms in the Governor’s Mansion, and Terwelp has had the opportunity to work with several First Ladies and decorators in the historic home. It can be quite challenging to find the right materials that complement the period pieces while making the furniture remain functional. Terwelp takes great pride in his work and is happy to have contributed to preserving important pieces of history.

“I have been very fortunate in my life,” he explains, “My wife and I have raised four children who grew up knowing about work ethic. They saw how many hours we put into the business and while they worked in the business when they were younger, they are not interested in taking it over.”

To help in the shop over the years, he formed a partnership with members from Alpha Gamma Rho, a fraternity at the University of Missouri. As the students graduate, Terwelp has kept in touch with many of them. Currently, Jonathan McDonald, one of the graduates, is still working for him, and Terwelp has enjoyed teaching him the art form of upholstery.

“Oh goodness,” he says with a laugh. “The stories those guys could tell on me and this place.”

He is starting to look towards retirement and is not taking any new sofas, chairs, and recliners but is always willing to talk to someone about the next challenging project.

“I don’t think I’ll ever completely stop,” he says. “I enjoy coming down to my shop and tinkering around. I just want to really slow down and enjoy where my life has led me.”

In the background, Jonathan McDonald laughs softly as he starts to remove staples from a new chair that just came in.

“That’s Ralph’s story,” McDonald says. “And he’s sticking to it… for now.”

What's Your Reaction?
Not Sure

404 Portland St, Ste C | Columbia, MO 65201 | 573-499-1830
© 2023 COMO Magazine. All Rights Reserved.
Website Design by Columbia Marketing Group

Scroll To Top