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Leather
Leather’s pliancy and versatility - Luxury Bespoke Furniture by Gosling
Leather’s pliancy and versatility

Leather’s pliancy and versatility make it a perfect material to ‘wrap’ around furniture to great effect. One such example is a matching set of bedside tables and a dressing table. Constructed in dark stained walnut, with ebony inlays, the pieces are then wrapped in a thick chocolate-brown leather with a finishing edge of solid ebony.
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The popularity of leather in upholstery has continued to grow during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It is readily available, flexible and gives a sleekness to designs, well adapted to Gosling’s modern aesthetic. Gosling often work with leather because it is tactile and hard-wearing, giving an aura of authenticity, warmth and durability.

Leather is the material created through the treatment of animal skins, primarily cattle, by a process called tanning. The tanning process alters the protein structure of the hide permanently, converting a putrescible skin into durable, long-lasting and versatile leather.

Soft leathers and suedes (used for lining desk drawers and games tables) at an Alma Leather workshop in the East End of London; embossing leathers with a range of patinas to emulate the natural skins of crocodile, snake and lizard. These can then be used as inlays into pieces or to wrap and upholster chairs and low tables.

The history of leather is long. Wall paintings and artefacts from Egyptian and Nubian tombs dating from 5000+2000 BCE, show that leather was used for sandals, clothing, water vessels, cushions, shrouds and military equipment. The earliest known document written on leather is an Egyptian scroll dating from about 2000 BCE, and a Sumerian recipe for tanning freshly slaughtered ox hide has been found, dating from around 800 BCE. The ancient Greeks and Romans also made extensive use of leather and it has remained an important raw material since those times.

By the Middle Ages most towns and villages had a tannery, situated on the local stream or river, which they used as a source of water for processing and as a source of power for their waterwheel-driven machines. During the Great Plague citizens in London are said to have fled to the Bermondsey Leather Market, believing that the noxious smell tanneries gave off would protect them from the plague. Although most of these tanneries have now disappeared, street names such as Tanner Street and Leather Lane remain as a testament to their existence.

Soft leathers and suedes (used for lining desk drawers and games tables) at an Alma Leather workshop in the East End of London; embossing leathers with a range of patinas to emulate the natural skins of crocodile, snake and lizard. These can then be used as inlays into pieces or to wrap and upholster chairs and low tables.

With the introduction of basic chemicals such as lime and sulphuric acid, tanners gradually abandoned their traditional methods, and leather production slowly became a series of chemical processes. Industrialisation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries gave rise to the demand for new kinds of leathers for both industrial purposes and use in furniture upholstery, as well as increasingly for travel goods.

With growing consumer demand, the market for soft, supple, more colourful leather grew. Traditional vegetable tanned leather was too hard and thick, so the process of mineral tanning (chrome tanning) using salts of metal chromium, was adopted, resulting in softer, finer leathers.

Post tanning the leather may undergo one of a number of processes, including dyeing to give it colour; fat-liquoring with fats and oils to lubricate and soften the fibre structure of the leather; and drying and staking to soften the leather by passing it over a series of blunt pins that pummel and flex it. The leather is then finished by buffing, with the application of coatings to the surface of the leather to protect it and make it easier to maintain, improve its water resistance and durability and to enhance its colour and appearance.

Soft leathers and suedes (used for lining desk drawers and games tables) at an Alma Leather workshop in the East End of London; embossing leathers with a range of patinas to emulate the natural skins of crocodile, snake and lizard. These can then be used as inlays into pieces or to wrap and upholster chairs and low tables.

Because of its durability and comfort, leather has been used for seating purposes throughout the history of transportation (including for the hulls of early boats). In furniture, in addition to its use in seating and the upholstery of chairs and couches, leather was also used in interiors to cover chests, tables and desks – particularly on the working or writing surfaces.

Leather was also used in a decorative fashion for wall panels and stamped leather upholstery, often painted or gilded and embossed in a style originating from twelfthcentury North Africa, which was introduced to Portugal and Spain and is sometimes therefore referred to as ‘Spanish leather’. The technique reached Flanders and Brabant in the Low Countries around the end of the fifteenth century. By the seventeenth century this technique was being used for chair covers – backs and seats – and as writing tables and bedbacks by the eighteenth century. Examples of the rich and ornamented leather wall panels can be seen today at the National Trust properties of Dyrham Park in Gloucestershire and Ham House in London, where they are stretched on battens like damask wall-hangings.

Chair with stamped leather covers. Maker unknown, Portugal, c. 1720-40. Carved and turned walnut with embossed and incised leather back and seat trimmed with brass-covered pine domes (simulating nail-heads); oak seat rails and pine backframe. Unidentified arms and crest in embossed leather back-cover.

Embossing leather is still common today, but is a process used increasingly to imitate exotic and rare skins, such as crocodile or python, as demanded by the luxury-goods market. The imitation of cowhide by embossing, stamping and colouring has in fact become widely accepted, both for reasons of expense and to protect the species endangered by the trend. The skill involved in this is so extraordinary, and the resulting skins so versatile that it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between a real exotic skin, or a stamped leather one. Skins from ostrich, kangaroo, seal, crocodile, alligator, lizard, snakes, and shagreen (see p. 96) are, however, still occasionally used in furniture making or upholstery.

The fashion for upholstered chairs and sofas – a very European and Anglo-Saxon phenomenon – gradually increased the use of leather in interiors, particularly as gentlemen’s clubs flourished, and contributed to its popularity, resulting in heavily stuffed forms, including the widely adopted Chesterfield sofa.