The look and feel of leather are the characteristics that draw most people. For more than two decades, Steve Maturo has sold leather furniture at Museo, a midtown store in Kansas City, Mo. He has a 20-year-old black leather sofa and Mario Bellini leather dining chairs in his own home.
“They get better and better looking with age,” Maturo said.
In Europe, leather is used in wall coverings, flooring, tables and even countertops. Maturo and Museo employees have toured leather furniture factories in Italy and the Netherlands. The experience has given him an appreciation for how each cowhide is unique, similar to fingerprints and wood grains. Under a magnifying glass, you can even see pores.
Leather is so comfortable and soothing because it is skin, McDonald said. Through the natural process of transpiration, leather absorbs and releases moisture through fibers and pores. Leather can absorb and release about 15 percent of its weight in water. And it becomes more supple and comfortable with use.
However, leather furniture is not for everyone. For starters, it costs 25 percent to 50 percent more than fabric upholstery. Because of the expense and lifestyle considerations, interior designer Sallie Kytt Redd of Lenexa, Kan., isn’t a fan.
“Buckles in children’s shoes can scratch and puncture it,” she said. “In the summer, if you have bare legs, it can feel sticky, even in an air-conditioned room. And it’s not cuddly and warm in the winter; it’s stiff. I don’t have many clients who use leather.”
On the plus side, Redd said leather can simply be wiped off, and it does look nice. Occasionally her clients will insist on leather. One bought a dark smoky blue leather lounge chair and ottoman that were things of beauty.
“But a year later, I got a call from the client who said he needed a different chair, something in fabric,” Redd said. “Leather is slippery. If you have posture issues, it just doesn’t allow you to sit straight up.”
McDonald appreciates the positive characteristics of leather and owns a leather sofa with fabric seat cushions. Over the years he has learned the tricks of the trade and is now teaching others. For example, if a ballpoint pen leaves a tiny ink mark on nubuck leather, you can lightly sand it and feather it out to camouflage the stain. (Don’t try this on aniline or pigmented leathers.)
The biggest problem McDonald sees is that people tend not to clean their leather and protect it from body oil stains on head and arm rests.
“Leather is the Mercedes of furniture,” he said. “My dad was a mechanic, and he taught me that when you take care of a car, it lasts longer.”
Although leather is a luxury product, sales were up 20 percent in 2011 at American Leather, spokeswoman Jennifer Green said.
Customers are looking for more environmentally friendly furniture. Modern tanneries now use closed-water systems and private water treatment plants to prevent the pollution of surrounding water supplies. At American Leather, the dying process involves water-based products that are chrome-free.
Trends in leather include gray as a neutral as well as metallic and pearl finishes.
And cowhide in furniture upholstery and rugs transcends Wild West looks.
“They add texture and warmth whether they’re in downtown lofts, [suburban] houses or country kitchens,” said Fancy Smith, owner of home furnishings store Cactus Creek in Weston, Mo.
Cowhide rugs at the store are typically $250. “They’re good on their own or as a layer with another rug on carpet,” Smith said.
They’re also unique. Some want the cowhide to look like its natural self in pure white, black, reddish brown, black and white, or brown and white. Others want their hides to not resemble cows at all; they can be dyed and stamped to look like tiger or zebra stripes.
“You can even get hot-pink zebra stripes,” Smith said.
Cowhide pillows, lampshades and even window treatments and wall coverings are gaining steam. Using tiny tacks, Smith hung a brown-on-white cowhide that weighed more than 12 pounds on the wall of her son’s nursery. She displayed framed art on top.
Smith can easily tell the differences in cowhide rug quality: The bad ones are hard, and the good ones are soft and shouldn’t shed hair.
High-quality versions can take a beating, too. She has spilled red wine and food on them, which can be wiped off with a damp rag and then vacuumed. When a customer spilled hot wax on a rug, Smith removed it with a fine-tooth comb.
“They look so beautiful and exotic,” Smith said. “But they come from cows that we see every day.”
KNOW WHAT YOU’RE GETTING
Aniline: A hide that has been treated with aniline dye, either organic or inorganic. The dye is transparent and allows the grain and natural characteristics to come through. If you scratch it, it should retain the top color of the leather. It feels buttery soft to the touch.
Bi-cast: Leather particles with a polyurethane coating.
Leatherette: A material, most likely vinyl, that resembles leather. Other imitation leathers are ultra-suede and pleather.
Nubuck: The top grain of leather that has been brushed or sanded. It feels like velvet to the touch.
Pigmented: Leather whose surface has a finish containing pigment particles that create an opaque look.
Most upholstery leather is pigmented and is recommended for busy family rooms. Also called “painted,” “protected,” “finished” or “semi-aniline” leather, it feels slick and smooth to the touch.
Split: Not from the top grain. Cheaper leather is sometimes pigmented splits with embossed imitation grain.
Suede: A leather finish is produced by running the flesh (bottom) side of leather on an emory wheel.
Top grain: The grain side of a cattle hide from which splits have been cut.