Whether it resembles a well-traveled saddle or a buttery smooth burst of cherry red or lime green, leather furniture is classic and strong. As upholstery, leather lasts four times as long as fabric, according to American Leather, a Dallas-based manufacturer which creates furniture in fabric and leather for stores.
"Try to tear this," says Lonnie McDonald, holding a tanned leather hide. He cleans, repairs and refinishes leather furniture. The leather in his hands is resistant. It has a tensile strength of more than 90 kilograms per 6.5 square centimeters.
Doctors also recommend leather furniture for allergy sufferers because fabric harbors dust mites. Besides swapping carpet for tile or wood flooring, the Mayo Clinic's website recommends replacing fabric-upholstered items such as sofas, chairs and headboards with leather.
The look and feel of leather are the characteristics that draw most people. For more than two decades, Steve Maturo has sold leather furniture. 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."
In Europe, leather is used in wall coverings, flooring, tables and even countertops. Maturo's experience touring furniture factories in Italy and the Netherlands 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 says. 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 is not a fan.
"Buckles in children's shoes can scratch and puncture it," she says. "In the summer, if you have bare legs, it can feel sticky, even in an air-conditioned room. And it's stiff in winter. I don't have many clients who use leather."
On the plus side, Redd says 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. Leather is slippery. If you have posture issues, it just doesn't allow you to sit straight up."
Although leather is a luxury product, sales were up 20 percent in 2011 at American Leather, spokeswoman Jennifer Green says.
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," says Fancy Smith, owner of a home furnishings store. The rugs at Smith's store are typically US$250 (HK$1,950). "They're good on their own or as a layer with another rug on carpet."
They're also unique. Some want the cowhide to look natural 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 says.
Smith can easily tell the differences in cowhide rug quality: the bad ones are hard and the good ones are soft and should not 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.
"They look so beautiful and exotic," she says. "But they come from cows that we see every day."
THE KANSAS CITY STAR (MCT)