A modern take on a classic

This article was first published in the Newcastle Herald ‘Weekender’ magazine in print and online on March 26, 2023. Images by Shan Rose Photography.

Upholsterer, designer, furniture maker and founder of local businesses Upholstrei and Culture Cush, Reioni Douglas has always been creative. Even after she graduated from a business and tourism management degree in her early-20s and worked in various high-level customer service roles, she always had a crafty side-hustle on the go.

“It was when I was working on a superyacht in the middle of the Mediterranean and there wasn’t time to pursue creative things on the side that it became apparent,” says Douglas.

“I’d always been supplementing that kind of career with hobbies to keep things interesting and keep myself creative and passionate.”

During a stint back home on the NSW South Coast in her late-20s, Douglas discovered her love of upholstery, which combined her appreciation of “sewing, vintage, and repurposing things that already exist”. She found a course at Holmesglen TAFE in Melbourne, made the move south, and completed an upholstery apprenticeship in Torquay, on the Surf Coast in Victoria after graduating.

“It was really great. Because I was a mature-age student, I was just really dedicated,” says Douglas of her time in Victoria, where she often spent weekends in her share-house garage making because she was so passionate about upholstery.

After doing long-distance, Douglas relocated to Newcastle to be with her partner, Tahlia, in early 2019. She established her furniture upholstery and restoration business, Upholstrei (a play on her nickname, Rei) soon after.

What began as work for family and friends, soon, with the help of word of mouth, a local write-up, and an appealing online presence, steadily grew into a business. Douglas, as a young female upholsterer who also offered design guidance and advice, garnered a loyal client base of locals and Sydneysiders who shared her desire to extend the life of their furniture and save it from landfill.

The launch of Douglas’s second business, Culture Cush, in 2022, was the realisation of a years-long dream to create a thoughtful and ethical handcrafted furniture brand. One that offered a “modern take on mid-century design with responsibility at its core”.

It was through her own search for a vintage modular to re-cover for her home that she discovered how hard they were to find. 

“I’d spent a lot of years observing what makes furniture really good, but also what makes it really bad. There’s a lot of dodgy manufacturers out there,” says Douglas.

 “I was basically looking for a unicorn. Something that was going to fit in our space and that – in terms of the frame and the foundations – would be structurally sound enough to be able to justify spending the money on foam and fabric.”

When her search yielded no worthy results, Douglas started researching the possibility of creating her own modular furniture. One that was vintage-inspired, low-tox and made to last. It was then she thought “there may be something in this”.

After a year of planning and prototyping, Culture Cush was born. Made in Australia, the range consists of four designs – a corner, straight, ottoman, and table module ­– available in eight retro-inspired hues of velvet and completed with hand-finished hardwood feet (in either, American walnut or oak).

Every element has been chosen for its durable nature and, where possible, its low-tox properties. The foam is green star certified by Sydney-based not-for-profit Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA) and the velvet is washable – both are commercially rated so are long-lasting.

 From couches to conversation pits, the Culture Cush modules allow for multiple configurations and the flexibility to move them around to work in different spaces.

“The frames are made by a local joiner. We worked together on the design. He was a builder before – so it’s super strong,” explains Douglas.

“The feet get turned in Melbourne. Then basically, I do everything else – all the spring work, the foundation work to the base, and all the sewing and upholstery.”

The end result is a modular furniture range that’s attractive, hard-wearing, and designed to be lived with and loved. Case in point is Douglas’s own family, which includes a toddler, a dog, and a new baby arriving soon. “Our modular gets put through the absolute ringer!”

Douglas notes that one of her Upholstrei customers contacted before Culture Cush launched to see if she was working on any vintage modulars that might work for their new home. After showing them some photos of the Culture Cush prototype, they came to see it and purchased one.

“They loved it. It was a really nice way to validate that I was making something that people would love.”