Upholstery accounts for about 20% of leather production worldwide while other home furnishings areas are about 15%, says Stephen Sothmann, president, Leather & Hide Council of America. (Shoes take up the bulk at about half.), writes Andrea Lillo, Executive Editor of Designers Today
One of the trends has been a movement away from “the overengineering of leather,” says Sothmann. Previously, companies strived to make leather more uniform to compete against synthetic alternatives. But now the natural characteristics that make leather unique are what’s being celebrated, he says.
One leather supplier, Cortina Leathers, has debuted a new group of leather that showcases the natural characteristics of the hide but has been made stain- and scratch-resistant through a partnership with Crypton. One of the few remaining leather manufacturers in the U.S., Cortina hopes designers will spec this performance aniline leather instead of polyurethane or vinyl options, says Jack Prause, president. One of its newest collections under this group is called Allora, a collaboration with designer Virginia Langley.
Stocking about 660 SKUS of finished leathers overall, Cortina also offers what Prause called static leather, which will maintain its color, sheen, gloss and grain over time and is stain- and scratch-resistant; and dynamic leather, which will patina over time. The company loves working with designers who will send pieces of wallpaper or curtains to show it what color and look they want, he says.
“Leather is not what it was 20 years ago. There are so many colors, patterns, textures and finishes available today.” says Tonja Morrison, director of marketing for Hancock & Moore. The furniture company will unveil more than 25 leather introductions ranging from aged and distressed to reptile prints, hair-on-hides and high-sheen polished options at High Point Market.
Prause recommends designers consider the purpose of the leather before using it. Designers “tend to look for the color or look they want,” he says. But using a great-looking yet not stain resistant leather on kitchen chairs, for example, wouldn’t be wise, he adds.a close up of a piece of wood.
The leather category has also evolved in terms of sustainability, including manufacturing.
“Like every other manufacturing process, there’s a right way and a wrong way to make leather,” says Sothmann. Over the past two decades, leather manufacturing has become more circular, so the water used in the production process is treated before being released into the water systems and chemicals are recovered from the water and used again, for example. He recommends designers get to know their suppliers, and make sure tanneries are certified and producing leather sustainably.
One of leather’s biggest benefits is that it can last generations, says Susan Inglis, resident expert and educator-in-chief, Sustainable Furnishings Council. However, its transportation footprint is significant.
Leather production is a worldwide effort, mostly originating with cattle in South America, whose hides then may make stops in Europe and/or China for tanning and other processes before heading to the U.S. and other markets as furniture.
“We might as well use the leather but we have a huge problem with too many cows in the world,” as cattle ranching leads to deforestation, Inglis adds. Her friend put it this way: Use leather but eat vegan to begin to cut down on our global dependence on meat.
Companies are actively developing alternatives for the category – including options made from mushrooms, leaves and even apple skins. But Sustainable Composites LLC’s Enspire repurposes actual leather scraps – from Wilson footballs, for example – to create a new product that has all the characteristics of leather, including how it feels and smells, says co-founder Frank Fox.
About 30% of scrap is produced during the construction of consumer products, Fox said, which is one of the reasons he and cofounder Tom Tymon wanted to pursue this category. And while there is a lot of good faux leather in industry, Fox says it usually uses ground-up leather, and most include plastic or polyurethane – and “they look nice but do not smell or feel like leather.”
Using a manufacturing process that took five years and six patents to develop, Fox said it can “open” up the leather and create a slurry with those fibers. A process similar to paper making then drains the water from the slurry and the end result is leather. The company can also adjust the leather to be thinner or thicker or softer or stiffer, depending on what the final user wants, he adds, and is already working with such companies as Moore & Giles.
This new process meets both a recycling need as well as an authenticity need, Fox says. “It’s really leather.”