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More-affordable leather pushes decorative envelope

| Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Love the look of leather?

Saddle up.

Leather is charging into home decor, going beyond couches, chairs and table tops. It's upholstering walls and covering floors, and manufactured materials made from recycled leather are broadening the design possibilities even further.

Imagine a door covered in faux crocodile, a bathroom vanity with a cowhide insert or a closet with leather-wrapped shelves.

Leather produces a sophisticated look suitable for contemporary, rustic or club-like settings, “but not your traditional Colonial home,” says Christian Nadeau, president of EcoDomo, a Quebec manufacturer of leather surfacing materials. He often sees leather flooring used in media rooms to give a feel of richness and intimacy, but some types can be tough enough for a kitchen or a well-traveled staircase.

Nadeau says leather surfaces have become more popular as interest in natural materials has grown.

“Leather is just one more product that goes in that direction to put nature back in homes,” he says.

Leather on surfaces is hardly mainstream, and genuine leather is a home-decorating luxury. But technology is bringing prices down and making this high-end look accessible to customers with bigger design aspirations than budgets.

That's true even with real leather, an option that until now has been prohibitively pricey for most consumers. Kaleen Leathers in Westchester, Ill., for example, is developing genuine-leather panels that manager Frank Mullen says will reduce the cost of leather walls and floors by making them easier and cheaper to install.

The die-cut panels are applied to a rubber backing and then adhered to a wall or floor with a releasable adhesive, much like carpet squares. The backing and the precise die cuts simplify installation, he said, and the low-tack adhesive means you can even take the panels with you if you move.

A 12-inch by 12-inch panel in an average-range leather might cost $25 to $30, he says — not exactly bargain-basement stuff, but reasonable in comparison to leather-tile prices that can approach or even exceed $100 a square foot.

Finer leathers would cost considerably more, he said. So would larger panels, because they produce less yield from a hide.

Where design inroads really are being made, though, is in surfacing products using recycled or bonded leather, a manufactured product made from leather scraps. Remnants from the manufacture of leather goods are pulverized, and the resulting fibers are mixed with other materials and pressed into sheets that are colored and textured to look like genuine leather. A coating protects the product.

Bonded leather can go wherever wood can — even below grade, in some instances. It's not recommended for wet environments such as full bathrooms.

Ontario flooring company Torlys uses a proprietary protective coating that gives its bonded-leather floors a life span of 25 to 30 years with normal wear, says E.C. “Bill” Dearing, its national manager of market development. Torlys' flooring is made from a thin layer of bonded leather applied to high-density fiberboard and backed by cork, so Dearing says it's comfortable underfoot but not spongy. It's a feel much like walking on a wood floor, he said.

EcoDomo's floors have a 25-year residential warranty, and, Nadeau says, the company has put them in kitchens, on staircases, in hotel lobbies and in other high-traffic areas.

Maintenance is the same as a wood floor — vacuum without a beater bar to remove dust and damp mop using a floor cleaner.

“But people don't buy it for its wear, honestly,” he says. More often, consumers fall in love first with the look, he says, and then durability becomes the deciding factor.

Torlys' bonded-leather flooring sells for $10 to $13 a square foot; EcoDomo's, for about $12 to $14. Those prices don't include installation.

EcoDomo also makes 4-foot by 8-foot sheets of bonded leather for the wood industry, for applications such as a veneer on kitchen cabinets.

One of his favorite uses for bonded leather is in stitched walls, custom fitted to a room. Leather panels are cut to fit around doors, switches and other features, and panels are top-stitched for a finished look.

“It looks like your wall was sewn in place,” he says.

EcoDomo also makes floor tiles from genuine leather — from the tough leather from the necks of cattle in order to stand up to foot traffic. The process produces a lot of waste, so the product is expensive — around $80 a square foot.

Nadeau sees almost limitless possibilities for leather in the home. He's seen leather-wrapped chandeliers and leather-covered bathroom vanities, and his company has even wrapped toilet seats in leather for yachts and hotels.

“It's always a conversation piece for the homeowner,” he says.

Mary Beth Breckenridge isi a staff writer for Akron Beacon Journal.

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