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Luxurious Leather Making

Luxurious Leather Making

In April Diana Wagner MID 14 took a hiatus from studio to explore the rolling hills of San Miniato, a small village nestled in the Tuscan countryside, and learn about a new material that could be integral to her work.

In April Diana Wagner MID 14 took a hiatus from studio to explore the rolling hills of San Miniato, a small village nestled in the Tuscan countryside, and learn about a new material that could be integral to her work. The industrial designer traveled to Italy with Associate Professor Catherine Andreozzi 87 AP, head of the Apparel Design department, to participate in Craft the Leather, a weeklong series of workshops sponsored by the Economic Promotion Agency of Tuscany and the Genuine Italian Vegetable Tanned Leather Consortium. The idea was to introduce the next generation of designers to the beauty of and process behind vegetable tanned leather – a centuries-old trade ingrained in Tuscan culture.

RISD is one of 10 international art and design schools – including London College of Fashion, Hong Kong Polytechnic University and Japan's Hiko Mizuni College of Jewelry – invited to participate in the selective program. “There was a wonderful mix of international talent,” notes Diane Becker, a tutor and lead organizer of Craft the Leather. “The schools represent a standard of excellence in their approach to materials and design. They’re all heavily involved in a maker culture.”

Throughout the week, students and faculty toured the region’s cavernous leather-making facilities, where fresh cowhides supplied by the local meat industry is transformed into some of the world’s most luxurious leather. They also traveled to Florence to visit laboratories where technicians develop the cutting-edge surface treatments that give the vegetable-tanned leather its appealing distressed appearance.

“When you enter these tanneries, you’re immediately overwhelmed by the sheer scale of these operations,” explains Wagner. “By the time we left, we had an intimate knowledge of how leather makes it to the market.”

One of the most memorable events of the program was a workshop lead by Andrea Toni, a leather expert who specializes in custom leather surface treatments using sustainable methods. “I was excited to learn that these artisans are not only craftsmen, they’re chemists who are constantly experimenting with techniques to produce new looks for the leather,” Wagner says. “It was inspiring to see this research up close.”

Rather than rely on chromium sulfate and the other harsh chemicals typically used to process leather, the vegetable tanning process uses natural tannins found in tree bark, fruits and plant leaves. Centuries ago the process was used to make armor and book bindings. Now, it’s the preferred method of processing leather for high-end accessories, furniture and other fine home goods.

“Vegetable tanned leather is an incredibly beautiful material that tends not to deteriorate,” explains Wagner. “It wears well over time because the oils from your skin polish the surface and help create the vintage look.”

The entire premise of Craft the Leather aligns well with one of Wagner’s biggest passions: materials innovation. After recently helping to organize an exhibition of some of the most innovative composites developed by RISD undergraduates, she’s pleased that the final collection has been added to RISD’s Material Resource Center (MRC), a repository of 18,000 commercially made samples housed on the second floor of the Fleet Library at RISD.

“The knowledge that I acquired while studying vegetable tanned leather in Italy is inextricably linked to my materials research here at RISD,” notes Wagner. “It's led me to experiment with my own leather surface treatments.”

Members of the Genuine Italian Vegetable Tanned Leather Consortium are hosting a competition that challenges students who participated in trip to create three personal accessory pieces inspired by the natural characteristics of vegetable tanned leather. In the fall, the goods will be displayed at an international leather fair held in Europe.

Wagner plans to submit customized leather footwear that appears to be growing rust. “I'm going to make three pairs of shoes that look like they’re worn with age,” she says with a smile. “It's an ongoing experiment.”

–Abigail Crocker