If you’ve ever sunk into a leather chair and felt ensconced in comfort and luxury, you’ve felt the allure of leather. You can feel why leather is the most popular and sought-after upholstery material. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when leather became furniture’s favorite fabric. Although leather has been used for various purposes since the time of Neanderthals, it wasn’t until it was realized that treating leather would strengthen it and prolong its usefulness that its popularity increased.
Although the exact moment when the process of tanning leather began has not been determined, it is thought that leather was first used as early as 5th century AD to cover dining chairs. Easy maintenance was one of the determining factors for its popularity then, and remains a part of its appeal today.
By the 14th century, tanning and detailing leather had become a respected and profitable trade, and numerous craftsmen were employed to produce luxury leather goods for the upper classes. Circa 1388, the Hotel de Bohème had 24 furniture pieces of vermillion leather. The walls of Pope Leo X’s palace, circa 1513, is said to have been adorned with Genovese velvet stamped with gilt leather. These examples show that the craftsmanship of leather was becoming quite skilled as early as the Middle Ages.
Leather Upholstery becomes a Part of Royal Style
In the early-to-mid-17th century, chairs sporting brown leather and studded with brass nails were becoming more popular. This style was called Cromwellian, after Oliver Cromwell, and known for its spiral twisted legs. This influence can be seen in the beautifully hand-rubbed antique brown leather, nail head trim, and beautifully turned legs of the Kingstown Edwards Arm Chair from Tommy Bahama.
Also around this period, high-backed chairs from Portugal and Spain were gaining popularity. These chairs were upholstered in dark brown leather and often had numerous decorative elements stamped on them. The Spanish were known for their leather craftsmanship, a skill they mastered during the Renaissance.
By the 18th century, leather tanning was a respected trade. Hides of all types were being processed and used, from ox-hide and calfskin on late Louis XIV chairs, to goat leather on Chippendale and other later chairs. Cowhide has since become the most commonly used leather.
Leather, Then and Now
Ownership of fine leather furniture was an exclusive privilege of royalty and the upper classes back in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period — and you can see why it was so highly prized. Its rich look gives any room an air of elegance. The facts that it is durable and comfortable are just added benefits. Leather’s gone through many stages, from oversized and traditional to sleek and modern. Popular colors range from oxblood, burgundy, burnt orange, rust, walnut, brown, and even turquoise, navy, and blackberry.
Tufted wingbacks and bulky traditional chesterfields are what most people bring to mind when they think of leather furniture. In the last 10 years, leather furniture has emerged in designer colors, enchanting a new generation of leather lovers. The feel of modern leather is soft, pliable, and comfortable. All furniture styles can now be upholstered in leather.
It’s easy to see why leather is a perennial favorite for furniture upholstery. It is long-lasting, easy-to-clean, and, because it is a natural material, it has unique and individual features. But mostly it is popular because of the “Ahhh…” that almost invariably escapes the lips of everyone who sinks into a leather couch or chair for a moment of relaxation at the end of the day.