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When John Waterer wrote his famous little book Leather in Life, Art and Industry, his choice of title emphasised the central role leather had played in the evolution of society up to well into the twentieth century. Leather was such a perfect ‘natural wrapper’ for liquids, human bodies, valuables, that it was to be found in every aspect of the evolution of civilisation, ancient and modern.
As leather helped society advance, and as new materials became available, leather adapted with the times to fit new uses. Waterer’s title would not work today, although the underlying themes are clearly pertinent. Rather, we need to consider new outlooks such as ‘leather in cities’.
Having rushed from a rural, agrarian world over the last few decades, today, over half of the global population lives in cities and many countries around the world, led by China, push urbanisation as a major part of their economic advancement programmes. Urbanisation grows GDP.
As I write this on a train into London, heading for a meeting in the ancient Guildhall where we will discuss the glove industry, I will be in the heartland of history and tradition to engage with the issues of today and tomorrow. This is the urban world that pays respect to the past in dress and style, but remains at the forefront of many industries, yet making the errors that lead to the 2008 financial crash. For men, it is the world of suits and ties, of welted leather footwear, traditional briefcases and all manner of small leather-goods.
For a second meeting, it’s to another historic building on the riverbank, newly renovated to accommodate start-up companies, in this case one on its second round of funding. Here dress is casual. Upmarket leather sneakers or varied outdoor footwear. Manbags are getting very common, with rucksacks widely used. Ladies do not stray so much from their city wear, although T-shirts are more common. Here, just occasionally designer jeans make it to the parade.
The interface becomes the coffee shop, the third space for small meetings or privacy, having regained their importance after 300 years. Long lasting upholstery leather has started to replace plastic and textile in the seating for these venue; wipe down with a damp cloth or leave alone as they mature towards the look and feel of a traditional club.
For upmarket venues, clubs, top restaurants, luxury residences and the like leather in the interior becomes relevant. You find it on reception desk tops, banisters, in elevators and on walls. Modern cities are increasingly about steel, aluminium and glass: citizens rally to leather as it humanises this hard, technical edge. Leather walls improve the sound and reduce the uncomfortable echo of these new architectural features.
And this applies to gadgets as well, where so many phones and tablets get protected in leather. Transport too offers new opportunities as we shift from automobiles and trains to the new term “mobility”. And that is a whole different story.
Leather in life remains; just refocussed on new areas and needing some new technologies and aesthetics to maintain its distinction and differentiation from the pack of following materials. The tanners’ task is one of continuous development.
Dr Mike Redwood
February 20, 2018
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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