Lucy Spiegel, right, sought out Cortright for restoring chairs that had been fixtures in her grandparents’ house and beloved by her mother. “Right away, I knew exactly who to call,” Spiegel said. (Photo courtesy Monica Cortright Designs)

Chairs may seem like humble functional objects. But over time, those companion pieces can feel almost like old friends.
Even as we quickly glance over, they can evoke loved ones we still envision sitting there.
They’re also teachers, transporting us to bygone eras of quality craftsmanship and distinctive style.
For Annapolis designer Monica Cortright, chairs have become a life changing medium, leading to a fulfilling artistic calling.
With distinctive vision, spirit, and passion, Cortright transforms chairs of every kind, old and new, treasured heirlooms and relinquished relics, into breathtaking canvasses, infusing magic into the everyday while preserving precious history.
Her personal love affair with chair refurbishing has its roots in the aftermath of her father’s death six years ago, when she inherited several of his wingchairs.
To honor his memory, she dedicated herself to restoring them, a process that proved painstaking.
“I wanted to do something really spectacular with them. So, I started checking into everything there was to know about upholstery and how you get this done. I had to have the best,” Cortright recalled.
Before tackling the cherished furnishings directly, she did a trial run with other chairs.
When she showed people the results, the overwhelmingly positive feedback blew her away.
She also had an “ah-ha” moment, realizing that the project brought together all the things she knew how to do best with all the things she loved doing the most.
The enterprise that grew from the experience, Monica Cortright Designs, contains the tagline Chairs with Soul, referring to the spiritual journey starting with her dad’s chairs and resulting in finding her bliss.
“I don’t think there’s anything more powerful than going through one of the hardest things you experience, then realizing that by doing it, you got the greatest gift ever,” Cortright attested.
These days she’s perpetually on the hunt for chairs crying out for her touch at auctions, estate sales, resale shops, and ebay (where she found one she “had to have” shipping it in from Detroit). “I always want to save every chair,” she admitted.
And chairs of every kind, from everywhere, are finding their way to her studio, from as far away as Chicago, Lake Tahoe, and Florida, with others as close as Baltimore and Talbot County.
Cortright recent;y finished a reveal for client Lucy Spiegel, a longtime media executive for prominent outlets including CNN and CBS, who’s called “downtown” Tunis Mills home for over 30 years.
Upon viewing the restored chairs that had been fixtures in her grandparents’ house and beloved by her mother, Spiegel responded with tears of joy and gratitude for Cortright’s efforts.
“The chairs that were my grandmother’s, the favorite chairs everyone sat in when having a special picture taken, she’s brought them into 21st century. They’ve been slip-covered and recovered twice in my lifetime and this is the third,” Spiegel noted. “As luck would have it, they managed to survive all these years. But one day I happened to look over and noticed the bottom webbing of one falling out.”
Spiegel knew Cortright through her husband Alex, a longtime area radio personality, currently on WTMD in Baltimore, and through a mutual friend, for whom Cortwright had creatively restored a specially designed “Rolling Stones” chair.
“Right away, I knew exactly who to call,” Spiegel added.
She visited Cortright’s Edgewater studio and together they quickly browsed fabric colors and styles, settling easily on a favorite neutral beige, along with “some incredible turquois” Monica showed her and a few others.
Just before leaving, Spiegel took a last look inside Cortright’s fabric room, and immediately spotted a Jacobean print, triggering her childhood memory of the Jacobean print which covered the chair backs when her mother recovered them.
“It wasn’t mom’s Jacobean print, but it would be my Jacobean print,” Spiegel added.
In a variety of ways, Cortright had been preparing for her current path throughout her life.
With dreams of a career in fashion design from childhood, she learned to sew from her mother, eventually earning a degree in fashion design and theater from Towson University, and later designing costumes for an off-Broadway show.
But she yearned to branch out into other venues, and was soon creatively exploring jewelry, children’s clothing (and now furnishings), home décor items and home interior design.
Cortright also credits music as the greatest inspiration in her life and art, citing her devout “Dead Head” period when she lived in the San Francisco Bay area (Grateful Dead fan following the band’s travels) and continuing through her marriage to a musically connected radio personality.
Songs and artists inspire the names she often gives the creations she develops a deep personal rapport with, from loveseats christened Elvis Paisley and John Lennon’s Imagine, to a chair duo dubbed Ziggy and Stardust, plus individual pieces Blue Bayou, Dreamweaver, Free Bird, and more.
Her recent use of monikers based on two Frank Sinatra tunes made a Baltimore client, an ardent Old Blue Eyes fan, swoon with delight.
Her excellent taste in fabric designers runs in cycles.
After discovering Manuel Canova, that was her favorite for a while.
“Maybe still is, but then I started having an ‘affair’ with Schumacher, then a little bit of a fling with Pierre Frey,” she joked.
No matter who the designer is, “you can just tell a beautiful textile when you see it, and its fun to use them when creating a chair, not the whole thing, that would be too much, I think, but almost like a painting or a canvas, as a statement fabric, working with other things around it,” Cortright added.
“I am a sucker for a beautiful velvet and have probably used one in everything I’ve done. I like geometrics, and love putting different, unexpected design elements together. I used to dress my dad occasionally, mixing patterns freely, and he’d be like, ‘these don’t go together, whew that was wild,’” she recalled with a laugh. “It’s what I do!”
While her collection has contained exclusively high end personal creations and custom orders (of chairs, loveseats, ottomans, pillows, and other items), as time allows, she hopes to create an equally artful coterie of quality pieces expressing her vision in a more widely affordable price range.
But she adamantly vows to “never, ever do a white chair!” A big believer in the healing power of positive hues, Cortright has faith that they will prevail.
“We’re going to come into a time when color is going to be really important in design, and I’m going to be here for everybody, placed perfectly. When everyone’s finally ready to get rid of all the white furniture in their house, ‘I will be here for you’,” Cortright said.