Peter Tsagaris (right) of Elmwood Park sews while his sons Dimitri (left) of Oak Park and Dino of Elmwood Park work on upholstering furniture at their store Elite Upholstery in Oak Park. | Ryan Pagelow~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 10, 2011 11:56AM
Artisans, who often honed their craft in the old country, are becoming a vanishing breed.
Despite the influx of cheap imported furniture, there are still those who go the extra length and pay the cost to have vintage items repaired to their original state, particularly in Oak Park and River Forest.
Their preferred place is Elite Custom Interiors, at 633 Madison St. Now in their fourth generation, Dimitri Tsagaris and his brother, Dino, expanded the operation to include window treatments.
Their great-grandfather, Peter, immigrated to Boston, Mass., in 1922 and worked as a carpenter. He moved back to Greece and his son, Dimitri, opened an upholstery business in Athens. His son Peter, born in 1952, immigrated to Chicago in 1975. Going back to Athens, Peter got married and returned just before Christmas in 1977 and started his own business at 3947 N. Austin Ave. in Chicago in 1980. Relocating in 1989, he set up at 805 N. Harlem Ave. in Oak Park.
Apprenticing at his father’s shop as a youth was instrumental in his training.
“I am old-fashioned way,” said Peter Tsagaris. “The old craftsmen were very strict in their dedication to the profession.”
It didn’t take long for people to appreciate Tsagaris’ superior skill.
When Virginia Cassin was taking bids for repair of furniture at the Hemingway house (built in 1890; Ernest Hemingway was born there in 1899), Tsagaris offered his services for free.
“Peter repaired a reclining red velvet couch, a corner and arm chair,” said Cassin. “These pieces were over 100 years old. The couch was in total disrepair. He added all new springs, padding and refinished the wood.
“There was a lion ornament with a cameo face [on the chair] that’s very complicated; he put everything back together seamlessly. These were very difficult pieces of furniture that were beautifully restored,” Cassin said.
“This is a major focal point of our parlor. We continue to get great comments on his work.
“He did an extraordinary job. It’s important to understand the time, the pieces and how they fit with the house. We have people who visit from all over the world that sit in the chairs so it’s important they’re done the right way and that can stand up,” Cassin said.
For 25 years, Christine Baumbach has owned a designing business. Whenever furniture needs to be fixed, she quickly brings it to Elite Custom.
“Peter’s attention to detail is remarkable,” said Baumbach. “The caring, the time and pride he puts into his work; you just don’t find.
“I had dining and wing chairs reupholstered. He stripped everything and rebuilt the springs from the frame up.
“It’s a dying craft; most people take shorts cuts. A lot of the furniture pieces he’s redone are 100 or even 200 years old. It’s very labor intensive.”
Michael Fitzsimmons, who has run Decorative Arts since 1980, has a store at 144 Oak Park Ave. The last decade he’s been specializing in interior design for historic homes.
“I’ve been doing specialized interior design for over 30 years and I can spot bad work,” said Fitzsimmons. “I have complete confidence in the upholstery work Peter, Dimitri and Dino do. They’re intense about every detail of the craft. It’s like a surgeon about his work.
“When you go into their shop and see how they perform, you can tell right away the quality of their work.
“They did two antique Gustav Stickley chairs from 1900 for me. They reconstructed the web and restored everything. It was a beautiful job; perfect,” Fitzsimmons said.
Eight years ago, Dino and Dimitri added window treatments to their business.
Elite designs, fabricates and install custom drapery, shades and valances. They are also authorized dealers of Graber, Hunter Douglas and Norman blinds and shutters.
“It was the right time to move, because our client always inquired about the service,” said Dimitri, who was working for his father at age 12. “We can’t compete with the new furniture coming from China. There’s still people in Oak Park and other areas who appreciate having quality work done.”
“Dad taught us to be perfectionist. Make sure everything is the way you’d want it for yourself. If it needs to be tweaked, it’s done until it’s perfect,” Dimitri said.
While Peter wrote everything down on paper, technology is the lifeblood of the business for Dimitri.
“They can e-mail me a picture from their camera phone and I can give them an estimate,” he said. “Everything evolved with the internet.”
After some prodding Peter purchased a laptop three months ago.
Service is a staple of their business.
“We spend a lot of time educating people so they know what’s going on and the work involved [before we start],” said Dimitri. “We cater to everyone. Some know what they want, others don’t. Some will want a custom project.”