Q+A with Helltown Workshop Owner Helen Smith

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You can find Helen Smith’s upholstery work in many homes in Cincinnati and beyond—maybe even Don Cheadle’s.

Helltown Workshop owner Helen Smith was called upon to help furnish Miles Ahead, the Miles Davis biopic that was filmed right here in Cincinnati. We talk with the upholsterer about theatre sets, taking things apart, and some chairs that made it big.

How’d you get hooked up with the Miles Davis biopic, Miles Ahead?
They called and said, “We have a couple chairs and a headboard, would you be willing to work on these?” After that, there was way more work, all under tight deadlines.

A friend at Playhouse in the Park that I made costumes with used to call me when the theater needed help, so I got used to: “We need this fast! We need this tomorrow!” By the time the movie called, I thought, “I know how this works.”

The first few chairs that I did were really great. They had these chrome tulip bases and the print on the fabric was so hard to match up—it took me hours and hours. I asked what they were going to do with the furniture after they finished. Auction it off? And they were like, “Oh no, the director is keeping those chairs.” I said, “Are you serious? Don Cheadle’s keeping those chairs? That’s awesome!” I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s what they told me.

How did you start Helltown Workshop?
I opened Helltown Workshop in Northside about 3 years ago. Before that I rented a back room across from Fabricate, so we were kind of like a little mall.

It’s mostly an upholstery shop now, but when I started the business I did a lot more. I made clothing and guitar straps and had fashion shows every year. Now I mostly do custom furniture work—a lot for restaurants and bars. I did all the booths and canopies at Japp’s. I’ve worked with Mainstay Rock Bar, Northside Tavern, Mayday, and Melt Eclectic Deli. I’m about to do a lot more.

How did you learn the upholstery trade?
My mom was an upholsterer; she always made me take everything apart. Once you figure out how to take things apart, you can put them back together- you see the steps that are involved. It wasn’t something I was planning on doing, but I learned how, and apparently it’s a dying art. I just stuck with it.

What’s your own house like? Have you upholstered everything?
Yes, everything in my house is upholstered. Nothing matches. Everything is covered in crazy prints.

Helen Smith Upholstery at Helltown Workshop, 4178 Hamilton Ave. (side gate), Northside, (513) 263-0204, facebook.com/helltownworkshopnorthside

By appointment only

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