The running joke, the one that's been woven through six-plus decades of business relations, puts Teddy Muller in every bedroom in Winnipeg. When you're in the upholstery business for 65 years, you're going to get around.
Muller, 87, and his wife Marie, 81, are the owners of Art Upholstering. They'll be open for a couple more days before retiring.
"It's just time," Muller said, sitting across from Marie and their daughter, Laya Kneller, and walking down memory lane from his shop at 1244 Main St. "We've made a lot of friends, helped a lot of people, but it's time now."
'We've made a lot of friends, helped a lot of people, but it's time now'
Muller arrived in Manitoba in 1948, fleeing Romania after the loss of his parents in the Holocaust and the arrival of Russian soldiers in that country. Trained in the art of fabric by his uncle in Bucharest, he quickly found work as an apprentice in Winnipeg and after a few months working for next to nothing as an underling, started Art Upholstering and Draperies, working out of his garage at home.
"It was always tough. You had to go find (business)," he said. "The first year, I built things right in the living rooms. I remember one of the first customers, the Feldmans, I made a chesterfield in their living room. It was too cold in the shop, so that took all winter, I think."
A year of hustling business later, he found Marie at the Pritchard Pool. She had just left France because of the Second World War as well, and though they didn't have much in common (Teddy couldn't speak French; she was just learning English), they discovered a connection: her father was an upholsterer. They got married in 1950.
"A friend of ours introduced us," she said. "We were left together at the pool, and from there the rest just kind of happened. We just enjoyed being around each other... I don't know why I'm crying."
Marie's sudden emotion is understandable -- the pair are saying goodbye to the only life they've ever known in Winnipeg.
Muller quickly earned a reputation of being one of the best in the business. He has dressed up his adopted city through drapes, couches and chairs. Local theatres, concert halls and restaurants have all commissioned his work at one time or another.
Muller could do anything and everything with fabric and wood, but his specialty was restoring antique furniture. Attention to detail was everything, so the process would take hours.
He says now, a typical foam-cushioned dining-room chair in a typical house would take him a half-hour to recover. Back then, with home furniture often imported from Europe, a chair stuffed with horsehair and specific stitching on the fabric would take him two days to refurbish.
"Plus you had to take pictures of it as you were taking it apart, so that when you put it back together, there were no shortcuts," he said. "You couldn't get away with shortcuts."
Muller knows every street in Winnipeg's North End, a knowledge that isn't surprising given Art Upholstering has had roughly a dozen locations during the last 65 years -- all north of Portage Avenue.
Muller has been around in that sense, and a service call to hang some drapes would not only lead to a conversation about how he knew the previous owners of the house (and the owners before them), but also a discussion regarding the master bedroom.
"The ladies would always be worried about me going in there," he said. " 'The bed is not made and the room is messy,' they'd say. I'd say to them, 'Lady, I'm not going in there to make your bed.' "
To mark the 65th anniversary and the final week of Muller's ownership, Kneller has organized a farewell party in honour of her parents at the Main Street shop today. A new owner will continue with the business and a refurbished name: Art Upholstering by Ted Muller. The location is still to be determined.
Kneller has been busy cleaning up the memories, too, finding decades-old furniture tags with "Art Upholstering" on them and thank-you letters from satisfied customers in various file folders and boxes. One letter, dated in 2005 from a woman named Jo McCrea, references work Muller did in 1953, when he put together a sectional sofa in a crusted raspberry colour and a lime-green chair for $400 -- a high price at the time.
Marie looks over at her husband. "You made some money then."