In the Lap of Luxurious Leather

Leather furniture has been stampeding off showroom floors and into American living rooms since the mid-1980s, with still no slowdown in sight. "There's really no better time to look for a leather sofa," says Eric Vlessing, vice president of Coja Leatherline of Canada, a leading manufacturer.

Mr. Vlessing is naturally enthusiastic, but not without good reason. Leather furniture has transformed its image. While maintaining its reputation for luxury, it has become more affordable (starting under $1,000 for a leather sofa) and contemporary.

Much of the styling is European, providing a casual elegance, and the colors, well, did someone drop a crayon box on the marketplace?

The Leather Center, a manufacturer and retailer with stores in 10 states, offers a palette of 70 colors, with more being added all the time. Customers typically pay $2,500 or more for one of their high-end sofas. George Borck, executive vice president of retail operations and sales with the Texas-based company, says that advances in the tanning process are behind leather's popularity.

"Leather used to be hard and shiny, sticky and cold," Borck says, "now it is much softer, pliable, and the colors you can choose from are more vibrant." As leather has proliferated, so has the number of places selling leather furniture. The consumer, not surprisingly, can get confused. And even salespeople are hard-pressed to keep up with all the types, grades, and finishes. Borck compares the selection process to buying a car. "The guy who has three kids shouldn't be driving a sports car; he should be driving a Suburban or a station wagon." In this analogy, a top-grain, pure aniline sofa would be the sports car. Aniline is a transparent dye, and a pure aniline is the most natural product because it has been dyed but has no other finish. It is an open hide with the nicest "hand," or softness. A pure aniline is the most expensive leather on the market, but as Vlessing points out, "In leather, it's not true that the most expensive is the best." What consumers should look for, he says, is performance consistent with one's lifestyle. The best choice for the greatest number of people, including families with children, is pigmented leather (see diagram). That's because the finish and pigment add protection at the expense of some softness. A finished leather can withstand all sorts of spills and be wiped off with a damp cloth. "That's difficult to do when you have a fabric sofa," says Borck. As for toughness, Vlessing calls leather "the strongest upholstery material available, but it's not bulletproof [or fade-proof]. If you have a cat with sharp claws, [leather] is not a good idea, but [neither is] fabric." Even an expert may not be able to repair a puncture, but leather repair and touch up kits are available through retailers for small fix-it jobs. Leather, experts say, lasts three or four times longer than fabric, so despite generally higher prices, leather is considered a good buy. If treated well, it can provide years of service and age nicely, developing a patina.

Some products mix different qualities of leather on the same piece, even leather and vinyl in some cases, which helps make it more affordable. Nothing wrong here, it's just that the consumer needs to know before buying, since less expensive leather is more apt to crack. A lot of beautiful-looking leather covers even lower-priced merchandise. It's important, therefore, not to be sold only on surface impressions. The quality of frame and suspension can vary considerably, so find out what's inside.

For some, leather furniture raises concerns about animal slaughter. The industry's rebuttal is that hides are waste products of the meat industry. Still, Lawrence Carter-Long, a spokesman for the Animal Protection Institute, says that leather is a luxury, not a necessity, and advocates buying non-animal furnishings.

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