Looking good in leather; Furniture: The makers of home furnishings, like fashion designers, are using lots of the popular material this fall.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Following on the spiky heels of all those leather-clad models strutting down runways in Paris and Milan recently, the furniture industry, too, is dressing its new models in fashion's hottest material: leather. And today's leather home-furnishing offerings have more looks, colors, applications and price points than ever.

For wild ones, there are big, brawny, take-it-easy chairs from Pottery Barn. The Calvin-Klein-inclined might fancy Baker Furniture's clean-lined sofas dressed in skin-tight hides. Those who like to surround themselves in rustic, earthy environs? Check out the sexy designs done in lipstick reds or lime green from Roche Bobois. And fans of long-lived Coach leather bags will be thrilled to know that Coach has entered the world of home furnishings with chairs, folding screens and sofas.

Leather is even covering tables, walls and floors.

With so many possibilities, how does one decide on the right leather piece (and price)? What is the difference between the $799 leather sofa and the one that sells for $7,999?

Putting designs and manufacturers aside, focus on the leather's grain and how it has been processed for color, softness and stain-resistance. The grain and the aniline dyes used to finish the leather make the difference.

The full grain/full aniline leather is the softest, most luxurious and the most expensive because the leather has not been mechanically altered, says Michelle Rosson of Thomasville Furniture Industries and Leather Shoppes, an online leather furniture store (www.leathershoppes.com/). The more processing and finishing that leather undergoes, the harder and stiffer the texture of the skin becomes.

Full-grain leather also has not been retouched, so the scars of a cow's life -- from insect bites to brushes with barbed wire -- can be seen. The best full-grain hides are those with the fewest imperfections.

Expect to find leather sofas in this category starting at $3,000. If the manufacturer has "A" grade hides (cows from Southern Germany, northern Italy and Swiss pastures, and bulls from Norway and Finland), an even higher starting price is not unusual, because only 5 percent of the total world hides fall in this category.

Semi-aniline leathers often are embossed and buffed to enhance the grain. They are durable and stain-resistant and tend to be the most popular category for consumers. Sofas in this category range from $1,200 to $3,000. Typically, "B" grade hides (from northern Germany, Netherlands, England and the United States) fall in this category, representing 10 to 15 percent of the total hide supply.

Pigmented leathers are hides whose grains have been corrected by sanding, buffing and/or embossing to make the texture consistent. Opaque dyes are used to cover and minimize natural marks and scars. This is considered the most durable kind of leather and requires the least maintenance. Most pigmented leathers come from "C" grade hides (Australian, African, South American and Asian); "C" grade hides constitute 18 percent of the total world hides.

The remaining supply does not meet requirements for upholstery and is used for clothing, shoes, belts, handbags and the automotive industry.

Why the leather explosion?

Fashion, comfort and sex appeal are the three top reasons people choose leather for their homes, says Britt Beemer, founder and president of America's Research Group, a Charleston, S.C.-based company that tracks furniture industry trends.

"It has that element of fun and of surprise," says Chris Casson Madden, designer, author and host of HGTV's "Interiors by Design." Madden, who also is creative consultant for Virginia-based Bassett Furniture Industries Inc., will introduce her namesake line of furniture, including several leather designs, in the fall. "There's elegance, permanence and rebellion in leather," adds Madden.

"The interest in leather coincides with the interest in things that are natural," says Michelle Lamb, founder and president of Marketing Directions Inc. in Minneapolis. "It provides another texture that is unlike wicker and unlike fabric that is also natural."

Then there is price.

Natuzzi, the No. 1 leather maker in the world, started the ratcheting down of prices about five years ago, says Beemer. The Italian furniture manufacturer was able to do this by scaling down the size of their designs. Today, leather sofas start as low as $699. The strongest selling price point for leather is $799 to $1,699.

"In the last five to six years, the price consumers thought they would have to pay is dramatically different," Beemer says.

Style options are vastly different as well.

Lamb says people are drawn to the new modern styles, the sleeker silhouettes and the vast variety of colors.

With the right touch and the right eye, leather furnishings easily can be worked into any home. You can add a good-quality reading chair in leather or cover your dining chairs in leather instead of fabric. Even leather pillows on the bed provide interest.

Leather care

It is not the end of the world if your cat decides to do a kneading dance on the back of your leather sofa, or if you spill nail polish remover on it or your house keys scratch your club chair.

There are leather cleaners and conditioners to get rid of smudges and marks, and some blemishes, such as pen marks, can be removed with an artist's gum eraser.

"Finished leather tends to be more washable," says Robert Loncarevic, owner of the Leather Solution in Chicago -- which handles repair work for furniture leaders such as Walter E. Smithe and Roche Bobois. Loncarevic recommends using Neutrogena or Ivory soap -- on finished leathers only.

To prevent discoloration and drying, Loncarevic suggests using window-tinting agents or window treatments to protect your leather furniture from ultraviolet rays. He also recommends placing leather furniture at least 1 1/2 feet away from radiators or other heat sources so the leather will not dry out.

And what to do about rips or tears? Don't cry, call an expert. That kind of damage can be corrected, says Loncarevic, although he doesn't give away his secret tricks.

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