Thursday, May 05, 2005

Review: Leather samples

Unfortunately the amount of time needed to craft this first review of leather samples from Barcelona chair replicas was more than I expected. For those who have been waiting in anticipation, here it is.

Covered in this review are 5 leather samples from 4 resellers:
To prevent "hand picking", I requested the samples without mentioning that they were going to be reviewed on my web log. So these samples should be of representative quality for the reseller who provided them.

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 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 They're also operating, 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 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. "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. "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.


Anonymous said...

I'm curious if you have considered the chair available at Room and Board. I went the San Fran store the last time I was in town and was very impressed. Thanks for putting this together! It's a great resource and much appreciated

anthony said...

Neither Steelform or Eurostyle have been allowed to sell Barcelona chairs in the USA for about the last 5 years

As an authorised Alphaville agent -we are probably the only remaining reliable and quality source left

Whilst we sell primarily to architects and designers, and the corporate and hospitality world...the public is also warmly welcome.

Anonymous said...

The best replica I found was at Barcelona-Designs. I looked at a lot of samples and they were by far the best.