Thursday, May 19, 2005
The reason for that is here: beginning June 17, 2005, DWR will sell Knoll products designed by Eero Saarinen, Marcel Breuer, Harry Bertoia, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Jens Risom, including Knoll's Barcelona® chair.
So DWR's classic sale is final and they're running low on stock too. Since their leather quality stuck out significantly in my leather samples review, I went ahead and ordered a Barcelona chair and ottoman. Expect a full review in about a month.
Thursday, May 05, 2005
Covered in this review are 5 leather samples from 4 resellers:
Part of the reason this first review took so long is that I'm anything but a leather expert. When I finally came up with a list of properties to examine, measuring and classifying these properties in an objective and reproducible way proved to be even a bigger challenge.
Take for instance intensity (of color). This property is used to describe the level of - in these cases- blackness of a sample. Lacking professional equipment like a colorimeter, I used the color of my black leather wallet as a reference (100%). So 90% means: "Not entirely as black as my wallet". And 92% means: "slightly more black than -not entirely as black as my wallet". And then there is the issue of lighting: sunlight or artificial light makes a huge difference. What appears to be pretty black under a light bulb, can be grey in the sun and vice versa.
Thus, all pictures where taken under natural lighting conditions -dusk to be precise, with a Canon IXUS 330 (PowerShot S330 in the US) camera. I don't have a tripod so they're not all that sharp. I put in a 50 euro cents coin for reference too, which is about the same size as a quarter dollar US.
I will continue with a description of each sample. You can find all accumulated data supporting my findings in the "Leather sample comparison matrix". Click here to open a preliminary version in a new window.
The San Francisco based company EDGE*MODERN sent me the largest sample of the lot, but not without a penalty. It is also the thinnest of them all and after further inspection it didn't get much better.
Granted, the fine grain looks nice, but too nice to be genuine. The top layer (the layer that gives the leather its looks) is very thin and I suspect the leather of having being seriously buffed and hot stamped.
Because the leather is thin, it is quite flexible but it doesn't handle tempering* very well. After heavy wrinkling, extreme stretching or applying pressure, the leather doesn't recover without help.
The sample has quite a soft hand, but feels a bit plastic. I think this is because of some sort of (protective) coating. Rubbing a bit of oil on the sample more or less confirms that hypothesis; the substance stays on the leather rather then being absorbed by it. It is easy to wipe clean though. The odor might be another clue for the leather having a coating. There's a whiff of solvent noticeable.
All in all, EDGE*MODERN would not be my number one choice for providing my Barcelona chair's upholstery. The leather feels flimsy and I fear for its durability.
It seems that EDGE*MODERN has taken down the Barcelona chair from their site. As of now I don't know if that means it's taken from their collection permanently or not.
* Temper = The resistance offered by a light leather to bending, and the extent to which it recovers its shape after release of the bending force
Design Within Reach
DWR sticks out in this review by being not an internet reseller only. Design Within Reach has actually quite a few stores (which they call "Studios") in a decent number of states. For some that is a no-no right away; obviously these stores have to be paid for, as well as for staff and periodical glossy magazines -by you, that is. On the other hand, this is the place if you want to experience the Barcelona chair and see something else than the "original" (and originally expensive) Knoll.
So I wondered if the leather quality by itself would make up for the significantly higher price of the Barcelona chair* offered by DWR. They started off well by sending me a generously sized sample with a fine grain.
It's not the thickest leather of them all -as a matter of fact Steelform and one of the Eurstyle.com samples are noticeably thicker. But at least half of the DWR sample's leather is made up by the strong top layer that by itself is quite thick. Plus, the consistency of thickness is probably the best of them all. So that means the leather is very precisely split and if corrected at all this is done very carefully too.
DWR's sample is very flexible and handles abuse extremely well. Wrinkles and dents disappear in virtually no time. It is possible to scratch the leather though, more actually than the EDGE*MODERN sample. That is probably because of the coating and I suspect the DWR to have none. That would explain the very soft hand and the fact that it absorbs oily substances quite well. Cleaning would probably be somewhat harder. The odor is pleasing.
I think DWR did a good job finding a balance between flexibility and thickness. Temper and durability aren't compromised due to the considerable top layer of high quality. In my opinion this makes up for at least some of the elevated price Design Within Reach advertises their Barcelona chairs for and I will definitely include DWR in my short-list.
Currently DWR's Barcelona chair is on sale for USD 1695,-. Shipping is another USD 198,- and sales tax is collected in 19 states.
* DWR refers to their Barcelona chair replica as "Pavilion Chair".
Design Within Reach
Another west-coast reseller -based in Carmel, California is Eurstyle.com. They're also operating Famous-Classic.com, and were friendly enough to provide me with two samples. One was called "Black analina" and the other "Black vitello", incidentally suggesting that it might be dyed with something else then aniline. I haven't been able to get Eurstyle.com to clarify the matter.
Vitello by the way means "calf" in Italian but I'm not sure if I have to take that literally though. The sample lacks the softness that I would expect from full grain calf leather which to some extent might be explained by the coating, but not to the full extent.
The vitello has a smaller sized grain that is not nearly as fine as EDGE*MODERN's or DWR's and in addition to that is has the deepest grain pattern. The whole sample is quite thin, in between EM and DWR, and the same can be said of the top layer thickness.
The relatively thin leather is quite flexible. Surprisingly the vitello sample is quite strong and handles tempering well too. That makes me question the origin of the leather. Can it be real calf skin?
Vitello's looks and feel don't impress me too much but if you're looking for a strong and easy to clean leather, this might be your pick.
Eurstyle.com "Black vitello"
Eurstyle's other sample is quite different. It is thick and flexible leather with a decent, yet not consistently thick top layer.
With its larger grain size and soft, somewhat glossy leather it looks and feels nice enough to consider, if it weren't for the way it handles tempering. It doesn't.
Putting the sample through the same amount of abuse as the others I was actually able to do permanent damage. Rubbing it somewhat firmly made the grain pattern become visible, which still might appeal to some, but not the accompanying cracks that appeared simultaneously. Also, the top of the top layer seems to become disattached from the rest, creating wrinkles that would disappear only after carefully redistributing the leather.
The odor of the sample is nice and I like the glossy appearance, but I would be scared off by the prospect of the leather aging and damaging very rapidly. Still, worth considering if your Barcelona chair is going to be more looked at than sat upon of course.
Eurstyle's Barcelona chair with both leather types is advertised for USD 1666,- with an additional USD 103,- for shipping. California residents will pay sales tax too.
Eurstyle.com "Black analina"
Final contender Steelform is the only European reseller in this review. Somewhat confusingly their sales department is in Spain, the goods are being shipped from Italy and presumably e-mail enquiries are dealt with in the US. Registrant of the website is Steelform S.I. in Spain.
Testimonials in the DesignAddict forums have been good though, and also worth mentioning is that shipping to the USA, Canada and Central Europe is included in Steelform's prices and they claim a five year warranty for any fault in material or manufacturing. So how's the leather quality?
Steelform sent me the thickest sample of them all with a nice, middle sized grain but it's not all good. The top layer is quite thin and not of very consistent thickness, nor is the sample as a whole.
Having a thin top and a thick suede layer affects the reviewed properties in a different way. It is flexible but not as flexible as most samples; it doesn't stretch very well and although wrinkles are easy to get rid of, the surface suffers clearly from tempering.
Steelform claims they use "exclusively top grain bovine leather of european provenience" and that "the superficies is treated for maximum durability". Even though the coating is of better quality than that of EM and Eurstyle, I wish they would use a leather with a thicker top layer instead.
Current price of Steelforms's Barcelona chair is USD 1499,- including shipping.
What to make of all this? First, I was surprised by the differences in the leather samples sent to me; no two are alike, really. Then I was struck by the significant quality differences of the leathers, that goes beyond esthetics.
Still, the ideal leather is for a large part depending on the angle you choose. If you have kids and pets running around and you need your Barcelona chair to be easy to clean, EDGE*MODERN, Eurstyle's vitello and Steelform might have your interest. The vitello is probably the strongest leather of these three.
If you like that big pattern leather look you would probably consider Steelform and Eurstyle's "Black analina", Steelform probably handling abuse somewhat better.
When it comes to overall quality, DWR's sample takes the lead. Their leather keeps a good balance between flexibility and thickness, while temper and durability aren't compromised due to the considerable top layer of high quality. And it looks and feels the best too.
So there you have it: of this set of leather samples DWR is definitely my favorite, especially at their currently lowered price. I probably would consider Steelform and Eurstyle's vitello too, but stay clear from the rest.
Questions, remarks or would you like to have your Barcelona chair featured here too? Post a comment or drop me an e-mail.
Thursday, April 28, 2005
When he compared his Barcelona chair to the one by Knoll, he noticed differences in leather blackness and shininess that he couldn't account for. So Austin decided to try his luck with applying a nutritive leather oil. Here's what he found:
As I received my leather oil, I could finally solve the shiny and black enigma.
In the pictures you can see the same shiny aspect I've seen on the Knoll. It seems blacker than before.
I took the pictures just after having oiled the chair, it seems very "greasy", the flash did not help either... But this morning, it was perfect!
Nutritive leather oil
After oil treatment
When I asked Austin about the lighter colored sides of the straps he acknowledged a color difference too, but it hasn't bothered him so far. It could be an issue to some, though.
To wrap up: here are some additional pictures showing interesting details of the Design-Classic.it Barcelona chair.
Close-up of legs
Close-up of rivet
Please, feel free to comment on this review by clicking the "x comments" link at the end of this post.
Would you like to have your review posted too? Send me your story, preferably with loads of pictures!
Monday, April 25, 2005
For those who can't watch it: there's a neat little trailer on the production company's site too.
After the Seagram Building in New York, the Toronto-Dominion Centre in Toronto, the New National Gallery in Berlin and the Lake Shore Drive Apartment Bldgs in Chicago, the fabled architect Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) designed a gas station near Montreal in 1968. This simple and utilitarian building reflects the divergent views held by experts and laymen regarding "everyday" structures, which most of us tend to ignore.
In addition to exploring the interplay of form and function in the works of Mies, this film gauges our awareness of architectural language and the role of the architect in society. Observations from some superstars of the world of architecture, including Rem Koolhaas, Elizabeth Diller and Phyllis Lambert, are interlaced with anecdotes from regular people who come into daily contact with the eminent architect's work. Original soundtrack is composed by acclaimed Ramachandra Borcar (a.k.a. DJ Ram).
Wednesday, April 20, 2005
This is what Austin says about his chair:
Quality is good, but not as good as the original I've seen again last Saturday.
In fact, I notice three differences:
I emailed the Italian Company who sold me the Chair and here is the reply:
- Leather quality, nicest on the Knoll. The leather shines and seems to be stronger, with no visible grain;
- The density of the foam. I don't know what is inside the Knoll version, but it is much more dense than the one I bought. I guess the Knoll I've seen has been used for very few time, but so does mine. On the other hand, the density of the foam makes mine more comfortable;
- The color of the leather. I've been a couple of time in the Conran Shop in Paris to see the Knoll Barcelona, and it is more shiny than mine. As a result, the black seems more black than mine. This is may be due to the artificial light there was in the Conran Shop, but mine seems to be not as black as the Knoll. As if mine has a very dark grey color. I mainly compare mine, which I mostly see on natural light, to the Knoll' s, which I only see in artificial light. But mine is actually to young to be changed by sunlight."I think it's of the light in the Conrad shop and the leather can be more shiny of Knoll.
We delivered you dull black Florida leather of Dani tannery - Italy. High grade full-grain aniline-dyed leather with breathable protective finish. In use the leather will become in years only nicer and the leather will become more shiny.
Florida is a top quality upholstery leather. You can maintain the leather easely with a towel of water and once a year you can treath it with leather oil. Always use the same leather oil.
We use a dense of foam SG 52 KG . High resilient polyurethane foam for a long durability."
The light argument does not convince me at all, and as I'm too impatient to wait, I have contacted a French company, who specializes in leather oil. I ordered two bottles of nutritive black oil from them, which I will try on an invisible part of my chair... as soon as I received it.
The straps are riveted, but the rivet is very small. The cushions are riveted to the strap.
The rest of the chair (everything but the cushions) seems to be identical. I mean it may be different, but an amateur cannot make any difference.
To conclude, I need to say that I am satisfied enough to keep this chair.
View of back with straps
Close-up of cushion fixating strap
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
30 years ago I performed a cost analysis for a leather tannery. During most of my career I have purchased and sold leather and leather goods as well as making leather goods. During this time I have talked with hundreds of people that process leather. Over this time period I have learned about leather from the following companies which I purchased (usually just the assets): Manon Handbags, Lorraine Handbags, New England Leather Accessories and Leather World Manufacturing.
Leather knowledge is not rocket science, but still, there's a lot of misinformation about leather. I'd like to try to explain to the general public as well as to others in the industry what some of the definitions really mean, as well as what they now mean in common use.
Composition of leather
Real leather is composed of many microscopic fibers which are inter-linked. When leather is used, it bends and the fibers bend and rub against each other. When it was alive and connected to the oil ducts of the animal, the fibers were all naturally lubricated. During tanning, the oils are first extracted, then later replaced with other oils (usually called "fat liquors.") Once the leather has been tanned, these oils will eventually dissipate (faster in hot weather and exposed to the sun). At this point oils must be reapplied to the leather or the fibers will start cutting into each other as the leather bends and flexes; cut fibers result in cracks in the leather. Once leather develops cracks, the cracks cannot be repaired, although further cracking can be prevented by applying oil or conditioners to the leather. Silicone waterproofing is only a surface coat and will not properly lubricate the leather fibers. Silicone can prevent oils from entering and lubricating leather so is only a quick fix for water-proofing. I personally prefer a natural oil although it will darken most leathers. A general purpose leather lotion or even hand lotion will replenish fiber lubrication and some will not darken the leather except temporarily.
Originally, only sheepskin was referred to as "napa." However, in recent years, the word "napa" has become an adjective meaning "soft," as in "napa cowhide;" this is really a misnomer. If it looks good and feels good, it is probably, but not always a better, more expensive grade of leather. The touch of the leather is called the "hand" of the leather, and the way the fingers slide across the surface is called "drag." My preference is that the ideal soft leather hand be similar to the feel of a baby's skin. A napa leather, or sheep/lambskin, is naturally one of the softest leathers and is closest in "hand" to a baby's skin.; a great tanning technician can approach this "hand" with lambskin.
Full grain leather
The best leather is full grain leather. The reason it is best is because it is usually the strongest part of the leather. At the top of the skin, or epidermis level, fibers are tighter together and hence stronger. In order to be considered "full grain leather" the leather cannot have been buffed or sanded on the top. Therefore, at the surface the leather fibers are most closely inter linked, and hence strongest. When any of these fibers are buffed (sanded) in order to reduce the number of apparent blemishes, leather's natural strength diminishes. Atalante® uses full grain leather for making most of its leather goods.
Only the best (least damaged) skins can be used for making full grain leather. The more natural the dye and top coatings, the more transparent they are. These transparent dyes are usually aniline. Only a small percentage of skins can be used to produce an aniline dyed full grain leather. Cowhide originating as a by-product from USA and Western European beef provides most of the top quality full grain cowhide. This is because cows in most other countries are not as protected by pesticides and enclosures. Brazil, for example, has large herds of cattle, but their hides are marked with thorns, horns, insects, etc. so that almost none of their hides are used to produce full grain leather. Full grain leather may be hot plated or not, the plating (done with a large metal plate which has usually been etched to look like a perfect full grain leather) being added to hide some of the natural defects in leather.
Top grain leather
Top grain leather is full grain leather that has usually been buffed and has originated from the top of the skin. I know it's confusing to many people so will explain further. Both top grain and full grain leather are considered "top grain" because they originate from the top or outside layer of the skin. However, not all top grain leather is full grain leather. Most top grain leather will be buffed then hot stamped with an enormous metal plate. Many times a finely finished top grain can be quite nice, with a variety of textures and finishes, but a cheap and poorly executed top grain on an inferior quality skin can look worse than plastic. Metal plates can simulate large grain cow or fine grain calf as well as ostrich, alligator, basket weave, or flowers. The finest leathers do not need to be plated, but are rare in a world of bugs, barbs, bumps, bruises and brands.
Leather can still qualify as "top grain" or "genuine leather" even though it has been buffed. The buffing process involves sanding off the surface blemishes. The mildest form of buffing leather is called "snuffing," (as in, "Has the leather been snuffed?) Taken to the extreme, the sanding can remove almost all of the natural hair cells of a cheaper leather such as pig (where the pores are unusually pronounced), hence, in this process the leather is weakened because most of the tightest leather fibers are removed. These cheaper grades of top grain leather are usually sprayed with a pigment die (see color).
The cheapest grades of "genuine leather" usually use the cheapest hides (such as pigskin) to replicate cowhide (it can still legally be called "genuine leather.") The best tanneries produce excellent top grain leathers because they only lightly snuff the leather and use top quality finishes and processes to duplicate the look of full grain leather. Often a smooth metal plate or hair cell metal plate is applied with heat and pressure to "kiss plate" the leather, or iron out wrinkles and some irregularities and provide a higher yield of cutting. Sometimes plating is done on a high quality calfskin to replicate reptile skins. The Italian tanneries produce fine cowhide leather replicas of alligator because they use high quality etched plates and spend a lot of time and care applying multiple layers of dyes.
Nu-buc and top grain suede
Nu-buc and top grain suede are top grain leathers with the grain raised to a velvety feel at the best. These types of suede are stronger, have a finer nap, and are more expensive than split suedes.
Split leather and split suede
Split leather and split suede are weaker than top grain leather, and is usually, but not always, less expensive. It is the layer of the leather which is closer to the meat. In this layer, the fibers are not as closely linked and are looser than in the top grain. This is why split leather is weaker than top grain leather (given the same thickness and animal). However, a very thick split leather can be stronger than a thin top grain leather. Cowboys still often use heavy suede chaps for protection. Atalante® makes several tote bags of heavy suede which have long lifetimes, even when used as a tool bags. According to some seldom enforced federal laws, split leather must be labeled as such. Sometimes the split may be stronger, more attractive, more expensive, and hence better than a cheap top grain pigskin that has had enough of its epidermis removed to get down to the "split" in a different way. If the method of doing it is via buffing, it supposedly still qualifies as "top grain" or "genuine leather."
Finished split leather
Finished split leather is split suede with a spray coating of color pigment, bonding agents, etc. which has been plated with a hair cell hot stamp. It is usually, but not always, weaker than top grain leather. When a urethane coating or PU (polyurethane) film is laminated to leather, usually it is laminated to split leather, but once it has been laminated it becomes impossible to tell whether it was laminated to a top grain or a split. Urethane coatings are usually very tough and in many cases stronger than top grain leathers, but the range of qualities in the coatings also varies with the price. Depending on the substrata and the coating it can be stronger than some top grain leathers, and sometimes more attractive and more expensive than a poor top grain leather.
Many companies brand items that are not legally "top grain leather" or "genuine leather" as "leather" or "genuine goat grain". The problem is that they don't say goat grain "what". Bonded leather is composed of ground leather so that it is reduced to short fibers. They are then mixed with glue and pressed into sheets, then colored with the same coatings used on leathers. If you are looking at a stiff leather, looks can be deceiving. Bonded leather is only as strong as its thickness, the material to which it may be laminated, and the possible addition of a top urethane coat. Poor bonded leathers are weak and will not last long with use. The best bonded leathers will last longer, but not as long as genuine leather.
Types of leather (animal)
Leather is primarily a by-product from an animal used for food. Mink is one of the few animals which is raised primarily for its skin or pelt. Cowhide is probably the most popular, and is relatively strong. For its strength and also because of its "breathability", it is still the best material for shoes and many personal accessories. Crocodile, lizard, water buffalo, and goat are other durable skins. Sheep skin and especially lambskin, are relatively weak and will not last as long as the other leathers just mentioned, however, they are especially soft.
The coatings applied to leather vary in strength and appearance The more transparent the dye and more natural looking the skin, the higher the price and quality. Aniline dyes are considered the best; they are transparent dyes which are usually added in a drum and preserve the transparency. Thicker pigment (more opaque) colors are sprayed on, not only for color, but also to hide blemishes and imperfections in the skin. Sometimes many different combination pigment layers contribute to a "semi aniline" look that has a bit of depth
On the other hand, in order to craft many items for maximum durability I would choose a thicker leather (which never feels as soft as a similar thinner leather). Good leather goods designs are done with the thought of the type of leather to be used in mind. Also, certain types of designs perform best with certain characteristics of leather. For example, if I wanted a briefcase to stand up, I would usually choose a thicker leather with more "stand up." Fortunately, this leather description is similar. A leather with more "stand up" is stiffer and not so floppy as soft leather.
Cost varies according to the scarcity and demand for a particular type of animal skin as well as in the cleanliness of the skin, and the art and types of finishes applied. A clean and elegantly tanned and finished calfskin costs three times as much as a cowhide from an older animal whose skin is full of scratches, bug bites, skin diseases, etc. and must be heavily corrected to cover the natural marks which many people call "imperfections." Ostrich and alligator are among the more expensive types of leather. Rare types of leather are monitored by US Fish and Wildlife to make sure that the skins have originated on special farms or areas not suffering from endangered species regulation. Both of these animals are now raised commercially and their meat is highly prized (and priced.) If a skin is rare and exotic, it is probably illegal to bring it into the United States. Yes, if you try to bring a leather product made from an endangered species into the country, it may be confiscated.
When looking for quality, look to a reputable manufacturer who makes high quality products and provides customer satisfaction.
Saturday, April 16, 2005
This week the first bunch of leather swatches should be coming in, so the expect my first report on the leather quality used by different vendors somewhere by the end of next week.
Thursday, March 31, 2005
The modern city, with its towers of glass and steel, can be at least in part attributed to the influence of architect Mies van der Rohe. Equally significant, if smaller in scale, is Mies' daring design of furniture, pieces that exhibit an unerring sense of proportion, as well as minimalist forms and exquisitely refined details. In fact, his chairs have been called architecture in miniature exercises in structure and materials that achieve an extraordinary visual harmony as autonomous pieces or in relation to the interiors for which they were originally designed.
Mies van der Rohe began his career in architecture in Berlin, working as an architect first in the studio of Bruno Paul and then, like Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, Peter Behrens. In the mid-1920's, he began to design furniture, pieces that he conceived and created for particular interiors. In 1927, he met Lilly Reich, a Bauhaus alumnus who collaborated with Mies on his first versions of a cantilevered chair with a tubular steel frame. The cantilevered chair had a curved frame that exploited the aesthetic, as well as the structural possibilities of this material. Their experiments culminated in the virtuoso Brno chair designed between 1929 and 1930 with a chromed flat steel frame.
Two years later, Mies and Lilly Reich designed what is perhaps his most famous creation. Created for the German Pavilion at the Barcelona International Exhibition, the Pavilion chair was intended as a modern throne; a thick cushion upholstered in luxurious leather and set upon a curved metal frame in the shape of an X inspired by classical furniture. Perfectly proportioned and finished, the simple chair exuded an air of elegance and authority.
In 1938, Mies emigrated from Europe and moved to Chicago. The rest of his career was devoted to promoting the Modernist style of architecture in the U.S., resulting in rigorously modern buildings such as the Farnsworth House and the Seagram Building, designed with Philip Johnson. Perhaps the best summation of his work is Mies' own: thoughts in action.
Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe was born in Aachen, Germany in 1886. He worked in the family stone-carving business before he joined the office of Bruno Paul in Berlin. He entered the studio of Peter Behrens in 1908 and remained until 1912.
Under Behrens' influence, Mies developed a design approach based on advanced structural techniques and Prussian Classicism. He also developed a sympathy for the aesthetic credos of both Russian Constructivism and the Dutch De Stijl group. He borrowed from the post and lintel construction of Karl Friedrich Schinkel for his designs in steel and glass.
Mies worked with the magazine G which started in July 1923. He made major contributions to the architectural philosophies of the late 1920s and 1930s as artistic director of the Werkbund-sponsored Weissenhof project and as Director of the Bauhaus.
Famous for his dictum 'Less is More', Mies attempted to create contemplative, neutral spaces through an architecture based on material honesty and structural integrity. Over the last twenty years of his life, Mies achieved his vision of a monumental 'skin and bone' architecture. His later works provide a fitting denouement to a life dedicated to the idea of a universal, simplified architecture
Mies died in Chicago, Illinois in 1969.
ReferencesDennis Sharp. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Architects and Architecture. New York: Quatro Publishing, 1991. ISBN 0-8230-2539-X. NA40.I45. p109.
Recipient of the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal, 1960.