Sign up for our Newsletter

Joe Koplinka has made furniture upholstery his life’s work here on eastern Long Island. With skills at once finely attuned to detail and surprisingly swift, he focuses his attention on one project at a time at Wallace Home Design in Southold. (Photo credit: Doug Young)

For 56 years, Joe Koplinka has honed his craft as the talented upholsterer behind the beautiful furnishings and their accoutrements that get restored (or, at times, created from scratch) at Wallace Home Design in Southold. It’s been his life’s work to breathe new life into — as they say in the furniture world — good pieces. 

And he knows the difference. A chair or a couch could look like a wreck to the untrained eye, but Koplinka knows a diamond in the rough when he sees it (and especially when he feels it — weight and a solid frame being the most important clues, he says). 

The way he tells it, he kind of fell into the job. Yet, his incredible eye for detail, deep knowledge of the work and commitment to his craft (tucked somewhere on the inside frame of every piece he works on is Koplinka’s initials — he signs each and every one) has made him one of the most in-demand upholsterers on the East End, even in semi-retirement. 

It’s a trade he learned from his father, who learned it from his father before him. A trade that, with today’s designer upholstery fabrics and an HGTV-powered focus on design, seems to be in fashion again, even if, ironically, the trade of upholstering appears to be on the wane. But while fads may come and go, for Koplinka it’s all about what lies beneath. 

Stitching a life

Photo credit: Doug Young

“You learn from taking stuff apart and putting it back together,” Koplinka says. “You make mistakes, but you learn from them.”

Koplinka wasn’t really sure what he wanted to do when high school ended. It was 1970, and it seemed like the world around him was on fire. The Vietnam War raged on. The Beatles broke up. The Apollo 13 mission to the moon launched. Kent State shocked the nation. PBS was born. Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix overdosed. And on and on. With so much change churning, a little stability sounded like a pretty groovy thing. 

The Riverhead High School senior was content with his weekend job at Wallace in Southold, the upholstery business where his dad worked, owned then by its namesake founder, Joe Wallace, whose father opened the business around 1951. Within only a few years of being in business, the elder Wallace died suddenly of a heart attack and his son, Joe — newly married and enrolled in the Maritime College at Fort Schuyler — had to take over the family business, eventually turning it into something that would become a staple among homeowners on the East End. 

“When I was in school, I used to come in on Saturdays and summer vacations to help out. I’d sweep the floors and take stuff apart, or whatever,” Koplinka says. “Joe came up to me one day and said, ‘What are you going to do with your life now that you graduated?’, and I said I don’t know. And he said, ‘You’re going to come work for me.’”

Koplinka worked alongside his own dad, who had been employed by the Wallaces since Joe took over, learning the craft and becoming an important member of the staff.

“He is so proud of his work, and it even went beyond my husband’s expectations,” says Phyllis Wallace. Joe Wallace passed away in December 1999 and she sold the business soon thereafter – but Phyllis has popped in to visit Koplinka from time to time to reminisce about the old days. “He takes great pride in it, and I’m so happy for that. If you’re pleased with what you’re doing, you’ve got it made — especially if it puts food on the table.”

 When the Wallace family decided to sell their business in the early 2000s, the new owner didn’t stick and soon after, put it  back on the market. It caught the eye of Mike and Renee Lisowy, who became Southold’s stewards of the custom upholstery, drapes, cushions, pillows and blinds business in 2005, and who immediately saw the treasure they had in both the business’s good reputation, and in Koplinka.

Repeating patterns

“[Joe] retired for about a year, and then he came out of retirement, which we were so thankful for,” says Wallace co-owner Renee Lisowy, shown on the opposite page with her husband, Mike. “ Today, Koplinka devotes three days a week to his finely honed craft. (Photo credit: Doug Young)

“We were toying with the question of should we keep the Wallace name, or should we put our own name on because my husband had a successful business already,” says Renee of Mike, who’d had been working in window treatments for many years. But as client after client came in during those first few weeks of ownership, talking about their deep history with the Wallace family’s work, and Koplinka’s fine craftsmanship, the Lisowys knew that keeping the name intact was the right thing to do. “Joe Wallace,” Renee says, “was really special.”

Mike, too, finds there’s a long memory that goes along with many of the clients who patronize their business. “We didn’t really know what we were buying, the legacy behind it,” says Mike. “When we bought and considered changing the name, I realized, oh, we can’t do that. And I’m glad I didn’t. But people still call me Mike Wallace!” he laughs.

About two years ago, Koplinka decided to retire — but it didn’t last too long. He opted to come back to Wallace, now working three a days a week; semi-retirement seems to suit him much better. 

“I learned in the old school methods. You take a lot of your old antiques – a lot of those were built up with horse hair and stuff like that. I learned how to do all that,” he says.  “Now a lot of furniture, they just take a piece of foam and a piece of Dacron and, boom, it’s done. But to really build up a seat, it’s horse hair and foam.” 

As much as things change in the world of design, the value of a good piece and great work is still of high-value, both in quality and in its ability to be passed on and become part of the fabric of a home.

(Photo credit: Doug Young)

“Right after the recession in ’08, I saw only a little dip in upholstery, because you really can get cheap furniture if you want, but it’s disposable, right? It doesn’t last and it doesn’t hold up,” says Renee. “People always want to know: How do I know my piece is worthy of re-upholstery? It’s a great question. Yeah, it’s an investment, but I always say that you have to answer a few questions. Do you like the piece? Not the fabric necessarily, but do you like the lines and the shape and the size? Have you looked elsewhere and found anything comparable? It’s not always a worthy investment, but most of the time, yeah, it is.” 

The Lisowys customers today run the gamut — there are still multi-generational clients who know the Wallace name and come to have pieces they love redone; there are designers who come in to work on high-end projects for their weekend clients, using the design store as their source of materials and on-staff talent. And there are younger clients, too, who may be just getting started out adulting, but having grown up in a very disposable environment, appreciate the notion of things that last. But whatever their reasons for coming in, they all seem to have one thing in common: They know the work done here is a rare thing, indeed.

“I mean, if you got the newest stuff today, most of the it isn’t worth doing because the quality ain’t there,” says Koplinka. “But if you have a piece that’s 30 years old, or more, and you have a better frame, better construction, then it’s worth it.”