Design Miami’s December show produced a clear winner in the “ooh, aah” design stakes. The Campana Brothers – they of South American playful furniture with a twist – revealed Cangaço, a beautiful homage to the north-eastern artisanal leathercraft of their native Brazil, created in collaboration with craftsman Espedito Seleiro and shown by São Paulogallery Firma Casa. The collection of six pieces – an armchair, sofa, dining chair, bookshelf, cabinet and mirror (all price on request) is lavish in its detail, all leather handwork and bright colour. It’s also curious in its ethnicity, inspired as it is by the socially and sartorially daring cangaceiros, a band of Brazilian peasants turned bandits in the late 19th century who were clothed in decorative (and protective) leather. The collection is outré, but less tongue-in-cheek than the Campanas’ previous designs, which have included sofas and chairs made from stuffed leather toy alligators. It also shows that crafted leather has something new to offer today.
This shouldn’t surprise us, says Alan Purchase, managing director of Whistler Leather, who has just issued an embroidered range of Italian leathers and covered ottomans with UK specialist embroiderer Victoria Bain. For the material fulfils much that we are looking for in design and furniture: it’s earthy, textural, organic, and yet has the potential for innovation. “Its warmth and tactility make a space human and comforting,” he says. Add in the new wave of pattern, colour and embellishment in leather design and “it’s becoming an ever more versatile material”.
Interior designer Robert Angell, who now uses leather in most of his projects, believes the trend for more decorative and experimental leather detailing is being led “by creatives who are searching for a bespoke leather that is unique to a particular project and client”. For Angell, this means using the likes of hand-painted floral Edelman leather on decorative handrails, such as in a recent restaurant interior project at Five Fields in Chelsea.
At Italian leather-design studio Studioart, owner and architect Nadia Dalle Mese says her mission is to “present leather in new ways”.Studioart was set up as a tannery by her father in the 1960s to service the Italian fashion industry, but lately Nadia’s focus has moved to leather interior finishes. Recent jazzy offerings include a candy-pink and white quilted triangular tiling system (£1,434 per sq m) and Kaleido (about £860 per sq m), a padded wall covering of textural squares and triangles. As well as regular collections, Dalle Mese works on individual commissions, where the embellished leather is sewn to fit a particular yacht or residential interior. The studio’s newest collection, launched during Déco Off in Paris in January, is a focus on more delicate, intricate 3D embossed, embroidered and woven patterns of mini buttons and flowers within pink, ivory and grey decorative leather (prices on request). The result is couture-like, befitting its fashion beginnings.
Equally forward-thinking is new leather design studio Avo – based in New York and run by LA artist Brit Kleinman – which was formed in 2014 with the intention of making leather a more interesting contemporary design material. The studio has collaborated with the likes of Madewell, Google and Ladies & Gentlemen Studio, the latter on the Ovis sling chair (from $3,800) with a brass or copper frame and hand-painted intersecting stripes on the seat. But Kleinman also produces geometric patterned cushions (from $235), which have a tattoo-like quality in their heavy pigment on natural leather, and she has recently moved into tile making, where each tile (price on request) is hand-painted using dyes that permeate the skins (and can be colour matched), so the colour is full and vital.
The laborious hours that such designs require is part of their appeal. Helen Amy Murray’s cut and sculpted leather decorations on walls, headboards and chairs (wall panelling) – such as the Architema leather chairs she is embellishing with scenes of peacocks, birds and oriental peonies for a new private superyacht – are handcrafted, and all the more desirable because of it. Similarly, Bain’s new embroideries (stools, £2,050 each) with Whistler Leather are, she says, labour-heavy, “essentially moving the frame by hand and repeating a pattern across a hide, which takes huge precision and craftsmanship”.
Equally painstaking is designer Tim Gosling’s latest project. He has taken that rarefied leather material vellum and tattooed it using laser printing with a drawn reproduction of a column in Vienna – part of the Karlskirche – for the wall of a double-height library in New York. All in all, the wall panel is made up of 80 separate sections. And Fameed Khalique’s latest leather innovations include leather and silk fabrics (from £392 per m) woven on handlooms – as well as new hand-knitted wall panels and curtains (from £1,350 per sq m) made from slim strips of textural leather.
But what invariably the new leather story exemplifies is that technology and craft are of equal importance in today’s design. Studioart’s success may rely on great craftsmanship but, as Dalle Mese points out, “Tanning and processing methods have evolved greatly”, not least laser-cutting machines that create engravings and shading effects, and the application of laminae for metallic and gloss finishes.
At Edelman, the company factory mixes antique wooden tanning drums with modern machinery. Its Glitter suede collection (£209 per sq m), for example, is made by first using heat-applying metallic foil and then milling for a lived-in look. It’s a similar story at “leather engineers” Harcourt, which employs cutting-edge technology to cut, etch and form leather into 25m-long wall coverings resembling marble, for architects like Morey Smith, or into headboards (prices on request) consisting of leather layers that are then shaped into 3D leaf reliefs, using piping, wrapping and appliqué techniques.
At Poltrona Frau, which has just opened a showroom in London displaying its leather furniture – including Bob tables (£960) topped with silky soft leather – many processes are done by hand, including the rows of leather-button tacking on the back of its iconic tufted 1919 armchair (£4,584). But technology is central to the brand’s development, including new ways of creating innovative leather finishes such as Century, which is stonewashed to give a worn softness (making it suitable for the pleated leather Benjamin Hubert-designed Juliet armchair, from £7,032), or the brand’s Cuietto leather, which is dried by rotary machine, vacuum and then air to give it a structure that is strong enough to support the Fred desk (£5,988) by Roberto Lazzeroni. Similarly, Baxter used new technological processes to produce leather finishes including Kashmir (from £11,260), which is white-vegetable tanned, aniline-dyed and features in its existing collections.
These innovative and increasingly fine leather finishes make it easier to work them. In the case of the Whistler Leather project, that meant using the most beautiful colours from the best Italian hides and embroidering them in contrasting threads in geometric patterns. Such designs were prompted by a visit to historic Claydon House in Buckinghamshire; the fretwork and wood carvings in its Chinese room inspired the Nadal (from £250 per sq ft), an ocean-blue leather with taupe thread worked across the full hide in compacted geometric boxes of patterning. Bain intends it to be used by interior designers for wall panels, headboards and door coverings.
Another designer helping to realise the experimental and playful capabilities of leather is Spain-based Jorge Penadés. Penadés uses discarded waste from the leather industry to create a handmade, formed textile called structural skin, which resembles soft wood in terms of its feel. This compressed and moulded multicoloured material has “capabilities beyond the common two-dimensional expressions of leather,” says the designer, who uses it partnered with smart solid-brass rivets and detailing to form unique furniture designs such as a circular brass-topped side table (€2,800) and a double‑topped side table (€4,600). And in London and Tel Aviv, designer Dafi Reis Doron uses 3D software to cut her layered wood and leather stools and vessels (from £195) into curved decorative surfaces that reveal the layers beneath.
Elsewhere, leather houses such as Ecco and Buxkin are sponsoring student and newly qualified designers to further push the boundaries of what can be done. One such collaboration is the digital leather collection Visual Interferences (from €350) by Pieteke Korte, a recent Eindhoven Design Academy graduate, who engraves, cuts and prints optical illusions on Ecco leather to produce kinetic finishes. And at Buxkin, owner Jan Veldhoen, who has produced an innovative recycled, ribbed-leather covering (from €110 per sq m) for walls and floors, encourages young designers to use the Buxkin Lab to experiment with his fabrics and produce their own variations – the latest being Jeroen Verdaasdonk’s 3D mountainous fabric.
There’s much more innovation to come in this field, promises Khalique, who has just issued a new moulded fabric covered in leather (£2,500 per sq m) to produce 3D “pyramids, palm trees or whatever you want on your walls”. For Bain, too, experimenting with leather is just getting started. The current vogue for decorative effects, she says, is coming from an international clientele in London seeking “more colour and more ways to add decoration. Leather has always been a defining material that says luxury, but when it’s embellished, it reaches another level.”