Our Towns

Earl Lee’s Talent as Upholsterer Becomes Rare

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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Earl Lee considers himself an artist first, an upholsterer second.

He taps into both talents in his business, Lee’s Custom Upholstery, 1605 Belmont Ave., in Youngstown. “I also design and build my own furniture,” he says.

From reconditioning the interior of a 1935 Plymouth to designing and covering two wing chairs during the mid-1990s for the Clinton White House, Lee says he’s accomplished just about all there is to accomplish in the industry. “This business has taken me to places where I thought I’d never go,” he says.

Not that long ago, Lee was called to upholster an unusual circle sofa for a General Motors executive in Kansas City, Kan. “I don’t go after this business,” he says with a laugh. “But, after being around so long, it just kind of follows you.”

Another of his pieces of furniture, a library sofa he designed and built for a client who once lived on Pine Lake Road in Beaver Township, has been featured in magazines such as Architectural Digest and various trade publications.

Lee’s father established the business in 1952 and ran it until he died in 1981. “I grew up doing this,” his son says. “I put out my first finished product by myself when I was 14.”

In 1989, Lee moved the shop to Boardman and stayed there 11 years, then downsized and moved back to Youngstown in 2000 – first downtown and in 2004 to its current address on Belmont Avenue.

Lee acknowledges that his calling is becoming a lost art. It’s not a business that draws younger people. Indeed, many of the students he’s trained have found other jobs outside the industry.

“I do this because I love doing it,” Lee says. “There’s not a whole lot of new blood in the industry. If you don’t love this, you can’t do this.”

Now, at age 61, Lee says he turns down many of the larger accounts and high-end jobs although he often entertains the idea of expanding. “I could do it,” he says. “The demand is there. But do I want to do it? I’m happy with a mom-and-pop operation.”

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.