Artistic Leather of the Arts and Crafts Era
Those who are unaware that the early-20th-century American Arts and Crafts movement left a rich heritage of artistic hand-modeled leather—one equal in many ways to the hand work of the era’s artists in wood, metal and glass—need not apologize for their lack of knowledge. As the eminent Roycroft historian Boice Lydell writes in his foreword to the new book by Daniel Lees, Artistic Leather from the Arts and Crafts Era, the leather articles of the time “undoubtedly rank as the last frontier in recognition and collectibility from the period. “The pioneering Arts and Crafts movement exhibit at Princeton University in 1972 did present several pieces of Roycroft leather including a wastebasket and a frame. However, in the years after the exhibit, the accessibility, usability, durability, and favored iconic forms of furniture, fine art, pottery, and metalwork, all came to the forefront for recognition and value long before their leatherwork and textile counterparts.”
Lees’s book should go far toward bringing Arts and Crafts leatherwork out of history’s shadows. In what must be close to 400 color photographs, the color, embossing and carving—even the texture of the leather itself, revealed by how it reflects light—all but jump off the page. About the only qualities of these purses, wallets, tool holders, books, table mats and containers ranging from jewel boxes to wastebaskets that are missing here are their weights and the smell of the leather.
“Broadly defined,… designed leather is that which is modeled or tooled, colored or painted, and even burned,” Lees writes. “Some is layered in different colors in a pleasing applique of different smooth and suede types of leather. One important characteristic is that most often its maker worked with a love of the craft’s period design and used quality materials in its assembly. “All manner of dramatic table mats or large settle and chair throws and pillows were composed of multi-color leathers, usually glued and nearly invisibly sewn. Designs varied from ones with straight line designs most often associated with Arts and Crafts, to the free-flowing and sinuous floral forms of the Art Nouveau. Many possess uniqueness for the absorbing designs, harmony of colors of leather used, and the exceptional skills required to assemble one.”
Lees devotes most of the book to commercial leather makers and individual artisans in the four major regions of the country: the Northeast, Midwest, South and West. Roycroft, of course, leads off, followed by Cordova Shops of Buffalo. As one moves across the country, some regional design motifs become apparent—Prairie Style influences in the Midwest, for example—but flowers and birds are a constant, giving modelers and carvers ample opportunity to express themselves in complex, flowing figures. If Arts and Crafts leather has come late to the collectibles party, its arrival, spurred by the presence of the Internet as a giant display case, has been widely noted, and Lees offers guidelines for those who lack expertise in judging the quality and value of a leather object by its description in an Internet auction or dealer catalog.
“In spite of its fragile nature,” he writes, “decorated leather of the 1900s is emerging to augment established furniture and pottery collections. Artistic leather offers an affordable entree into the A&C milieu for the new collector.” If you’re in the hunt, let Lees be your guide.