Leather furniture has moved out of the board room, the men's club, the library, and the den into living and family rooms. What has brought about the current upsurge of interest in leather sofas, chairs, and ottomans that was apparent at the Southern Furniture Market this spring and is evident in stores across the country?
Part of the growth stems from significant improvements in the technology involved in processing, dyeing, and finishing leather.
Today leather can be almost sheet-thin and buttery soft. It can be dyed any high-fashion color, including mauve, peach, bittersweet, sea-foam green, almond, and vanilla-white. When properly applied, the colors are absorbed by the leather and will not rub off or fade. And leather finishes, like paint on the wall, can range from dull and flat to semi-gloss to a high sheen. Leather can also have a glazed-antique finish applied by hand. Because of the resins used, the natural oils of leather are locked in so it does not crack even after long use.
Leather also appeals because it is perceived as a luxurious, prestigious, and long-lasting material. Some young couples are buying what they term ''investment'' furnishings. Leather has the quality, good looks, and long-term value they are seeking. This means they are willing to pay about 50 percent more for leather - $1,500 for a leather sofa, for example, as opposed to $1,000 for a sofa covered in fine fabric. For the difference, they are assured that the leather version could wear from 20 to 30 years and never require slipcovering or reupholstering. They know it will be reasonably childproof and petproof, although leather, too, can be cut or torn by rough treatment or clawed to shreds by insistent cats.
Leather is also more attractive today because the improvements in finish have opened up many styling possibilities. Until a few years ago, leather was used mainly for Queen Anne, Chippendale, and other traditional styles, and it was simply pulled tight over period wing chairs and tufted sofas.
Today it can be used to cover soft-lined contemporary sofas and chairs, including those with squashy pillow backs. Both contemporary leathers from Europe and low-slung contemporary European designs have influenced styles in the United States. And whereas leather used to sit ''hard,'' says Hines Hunt, vice-president of American of Martinsville, ''now there is much greater emphasis on comfort, and the softer, more supple leathers make it possible.''
Emerson Glenn, president of Emerson Leather in Hickory, N.C., points out that various leather finishes do represent a trade-off of sorts. ''If you want a very tough finish that is resistant to kids, pets, spills, and abrasion of all sorts, you will lose some of the appealing soft 'feel.' That is because we have to build up the surface finish in order to get that kind of protection.''
Mr. Glenn says his company gives a written warranty with all its leather furniture. He also points out that most of the major suppliers of leather in the US, including Eagle Ottawa, American, and Lackawanna, stand behind the leather they sell to manufacturers.
Still, Mr. Glenn warns, there are some inferior qualities of leather on the market. The consumer must therefore shop carefully, ask plenty of questions, and seek guarantees.
Everett Brown, a leading New York interior designer, remarks, ''We are specifying leather upholstery more and more in homes as well as offices, especially that leather which is soft as chamois and has a glovelike feel. To our clients, leather represents the highest quality they can buy, and they like the new choice of colors. And they appreciate the fact that leather ages nicely and often gets softer and prettier with the years. Occasionally we have wealthy customers who are put off by the odor of leather, even though we remind them that it is the same high-priced aroma that wafts from their Mercedes-Benz cars.''
In the moderate price range, leather is available on such functional furniture as recliners, convertible sofas, and sectional modulars. Jack E. Hafkey, vice-president of BarcaLounger, says that in the past year the company's dealers have retailed over $30 million in leather seating. ''A bright-blue leather appears to be a favorite this summer with recliner buyers,'' he says.