Tracey & Tom Hazzard
Today’s leather furniture is not just limited to bachelor pads, but found in many family homes. Because of their durability and easy cleaning, leather and leather-like furniture have become ubiquitous at most furniture retailers. Just like so many other aspects of the furniture market, the sale and selection of leather are now so complicated with industry jargon that we have confused ourselves, not just our customers.
In this installment of our refresher course on furniture materials, we will look at the industry terms on Leather and Faux Leather with an eye toward a more consumer-centric understanding. Whether you’re an experienced, well-trained salesperson, or, just beginning to learn the art of selling furniture, knowing how a consumer views leather can mean the difference between “Just looking,” and “I’ll take it.”
Part 1 – Leather Types:
Bonded, Pig-Split, Buffalo-Split, Bi-cast, Genuine, Top-Grain, Full-Grain, Top-Grade… congratulations, your customer just tuned you out. These terms, while required in labeling, have no direct correlation with the quality of the materials. You can find Genuine Leather that feels like Vinyl, and Bonded Leather so thick and textured it feels like Top Grain. It is important to understand the basic differences between each type discernable to the customer.
In the US, as long as there is leather on the seating areas (areas that contact the body), a piece of furniture may be labelled leather. This “Leather Match” typically means the cushions and tops of arms are leather but the remaining is PU (Polyurethane fabric) or Vinyl. To avoid confusion, be very up front with your customer about the materials used on the sides and back. Do not call a product 100% Leather unless it is 100% of the same leather everywhere. Without disclosure, customers tend to see the material differences as poor quality match or presume they’re being cheated.
This type of leather is made from Top Grain of the best hides, is natural and not altered to remove imperfections. Full Grain is the most durable of all leather types, and has original or natural state markings like creases and scars.
This term is really misleading because it only means the leather is made from the top piece of the hide. There is no guarantee that it is a top-quality hide, however Top-Grain is still much stronger than Split or Corrected-Grain.
Top-Grain that has been altered in any way by buffing or correcting imperfections is considered Corrected-Grain. An artificial grain is applied after correction to improve consistency. Corrected-Grain is lower quality leather requiring further processing. This is the most common form of Leather used in home furnishings today. Most manufacturers fail to properly identify it as Corrected-Grain, typically just using the terms Cow-Top, Top-Grain or Genuine Leather.
Bi-Cast or Split-Leather:
This is made from an inferior grade hide or the bottom part of the leather after the top-grain has been removed. An artificial layer of polyurethane and color is applied and textured to recreate the look of leather. Bi-cast is distinguished from other materials because the polymer layer is made separately, then applied to the split leather with adhesives. While made from part of the hide, the surface does not meet most customer expectations of Leather because it is hard, stiff and unnaturally colored. Bi-Cast is cheaper than Top-Grain Leather and easier to clean because of the consistent texture of the polymer coating. Some customers and manufacturers consider Bi-Cast or Split-Leathers to be synthetic.
Sometimes Split-Leather is be made from Pig or Buffalo Leather – an animal other than Cow. Out of respect for religious beliefs, the leather source should specifically be identified to the customer upfront.
This manufactured leather uses ground or chopped leather scraps with a latex or polyurethane bonding agent, colored and textured similar to the process for Bi-Cast. This process means it is full width material with good yield and consistency, not limited to the hide size and shape. It comes in a variety of thicknesses and is more supple than Bi-Cast. In most segments of the furniture market, the industry has moved away from Bi-Cast in favor of Bonded Leather due to cost and consistent quality. Varying levels of Bonded Leather exist depending on the quality and amount of leather scrap. To be marketed as Bonded Leather in the US, it needs to contain more than 50% dry leather. Some other countries, like Australia, do not allow Bonded Leather to be called Leather at all, considering it a synthetic product.
Bonded Leather has grown in popularity since its introduction in 2007, accounting for over half of the Leather furniture segment. The difference between Bonded Leather and Top-Grain Leather, in terms of quality and look, can be hard to see once a product is upholstered. To the customer, the function, smell, and overall appearance remains similar and the softness of the surface is preferred.
Some companies market Bonded Leather as “reconstituted” or “recycled” leather. This is controversial in the industry and with customers because the polymers, bonding agents and coatings are not very environmentally friendly and tend to off-gas after purchase. Even though recycling scrap into Bonded Leather sounds “green,” leather waste is not a problem. Scrap leather is in high demand for use in shoes, wallets and other industries.
The average customer does not understand the difference between Bi-Cast (Split) or Bonded Leather. Because of the similar polyurethane coatings, both are equally durable and easy to clean. Fundamentally, both share the same top surface structure with either Split or chopped leather pieces as the bottom layer.
About Hazz Design:
Graduates of Rhode Island School of Design, product designers Tracy and Tom Hazzard have worked together for most of their two-decade marriage and professional lives. Their shared vision that good design should never cost more, that there is always a solution, and that one-plus-one can have an exponential result has earned them career-expanding projects, multiple design awards, more than a dozen patents, two children and a fine-tuned sense of what consumers want and need in well-designed products. Visit them at www.hazzdesign.com. They can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
or by phone at 714-673-6541
Furniture World Magazine-Business solutions for furniture retailers