It is Thursday and it has taken nearly five hours just to drive to Northampton. Twice we have had to turn back and find an alternate route because of floods. One more time and we would have given up. It was good that we did not.

As tanners we always use the same word when describing leather. They are good words such as “break”, “looseness” and “tight grain”, Yet they are tanner’s words and not consumer words; not even designers words. They are identifiers for the fact that we are a bit more in love with our product than we are with our customers. For much of the last 25 years I have been trying to persuade tanners to move a bit more towards the customer understanding.

Sometimes it is a designer who surprises you when you hear them talk about leather. On Thursday it was the Paul Lander, the Interim Museum Manager of Northampton Borough Council. He is working to help with the future vision and direction of the Museums in this small UK town, an hour north of London. Most people reading this will know that Northampton has a famous leather history in tanning and in footwear. It goes back hundreds of years. Northampton provided the boots for both sides of the Civil War in England, which began in 1642. The losing King’s side never paid.

Although Europe has many great leather cities Northampton still feels like a global historic home of leather working.

Museum of Leathercraft

Northampton has a world leading Museum of Footwear and just recently it has again started to put its support behind the Museum of Leathercraft. This has one of the finest collections in the world of items made out of leather but for a variety of dreadful reasons has spent the past couple of decades stored away. So for the Trustees (I am one) to be assembling to hear presentations from two companies as to how the new museum will look when it reopens later this year was really exciting.

But what stands out was the terminology being put into the process, primarily through Paul’s short but determined period, along with his colleagues, to get to grips with the subject of leather. “From animal to artifact” is his phrase, which we shall purloin with permission. His points are clear:

–    Leather is unique

–    Consumers do not understand the journey from the cow to the finished article they buy

–    Many leather objects from all ages have stunning intrinsic value

–    Leather is a contemporary material

Association with fashion and luxury gets in the way

What is more, there is a strong indication that the association of leather with both fashion and luxury gets in the way of what is happening with leather today. We should really be talking about design, about craftsmanship and the many contemporary uses of leather in a wide range of end uses beyond the familiar categories. Interior design and product design have brought leather to life in a huge new variety of uses where all of the senses are at play. Leather is truly unique.

Mike Redwood

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