Bill Amberg founded the studio that bears his name over 20 years ago. Synonymous with the highest quality of leatherwork and with a passion for the material like no other, today his studio is as much an artisans’ collective as a thriving company. With endeavours ranging from architectural services for much-valued corporate and private clients to bespoke interior leatherwork and signature accessories, Bill is at the very heart of it all. Known in particular circles only as ‘The Leather Man’, Bill is renowned for his work with this beautiful material, and is no stranger to Decorex.
We caught up with Bill after his seminar at this year’s show to talk life, leather, and the importance of craftsmanship.
AL: How did you first become interested in the world of design?
BA: My mother was an architect, she is half Finnish and worked for Alvar Aalto in the 1950s, so I grew up very much under the influence of modern design and interiors. I did a lot of apprenticeships in leather work in particular, which was one of the main areas of interest for me. I worked a lot in south East Asia, Australia and New Zealand learning all aspects of leather work. That sparked an interest in designing and making things in general, from woodwork to metal work and all manner of thing in between.
Leather Wall in the Johnson Building by Bill Amberg
AL: Your studio is infamous for your use of leather in both fashion and interiors; can you tell us a little about the business?
BA: I set up the studio in 1984, originally starting out as a bag business. I started to do my first big interiors projects in 1986 when I produced my first leather floor, which came out of seeing a photograph of Joseph Beuys in his studio. He was somebody who I really admired; he had a great exhibition in the flowers gallery in the 1980’s which was really inspirational. The whole thing got me thinking about how we can combine leather with interiors, and the commissions started from there. The interiors business flourished in the background, with the front end of the business seeming to be the bag design, but in fact the interiors side became much larger and more substantial, and it still is very much that way. We now work very internationally and are currently working in Hong Kong, the East and West coasts of America, and in Europe on quite substantial interiors projects.87
Hand-stitched bench from the Commons collection by Bill Amberg
AL: So why leather? What is so interesting about it as a material?
BA: That’s a good question! Once you start working with leather it is a very sympathetic material, and a lovely one to work with. The more you play with it and the more you understand it, the broader the subject gets. I had a very inspirational mentor who was a leather worker when I was in Australia working in Adelaide. She was fantastic, she had no boundaries on what you could do with the material, she wasn’t stuck in a rut about technique, and she was very open minded about it. It really helps to have somebody to grab your attention early on, and I guess I was lucky in that.
Leather Bench by Bill Amberg
AL: As we saw in the seminar session with Sally Mackereth at Decorex 2015, you are involved in a lot of collaborations with architects and designers, how do these come about?
BA: At the moment we don’t really market the business at all, most of our partnerships come through word of mouth, the odd piece of editorial, and of course our long lasting collaborations. Most of our best clients are those we have worked with over a long period of time, so people like Fosters Associates, David Chipperfield, Hill Spink, Derwent, and quite a number of the major interior designers.
From left: Leather wall, Orset Terrace, and leather floor for Tony Buckingham by Bill Amberg
AL: How do you ensure that these relationships keep going?
BA: It involves a constant progression of ideas from our end. One of the things we spend a lot of time doing is experimenting with the material to really try and understand what it possible. It means we are able to constantly put new ideas and new techniques in front of our major clients. That’s really important, not only for the client but also for us as designers and in the workshop because it maintains a flow of inspiration.
Hand-stitched leather stools from the Commons collection by Bill Amberg
AL: In the seminar you spoke about the importance of customers’ understanding of craftsmanship and manufacturing processes, how do you encourage this?
BA: The first thing we try to do with clients is bring them to the workshops, get them in here and let them look and see exactly what we do. By and large, once they get here and they witness the craftsmanship first hand, it suddenly becomes something that people really like to get their teeth into, and understand a little bit more. I think also you appreciate the breadth of the material and the techniques more if you experience them.
Detail of the Stack Table by Bill Amberg
AL: Do you think the definition of luxury has changed to reflect this desire for knowledge of craftsmanship?
BA: Yes, I think that is probably true. People care a bit more now, it’s not just about how shiny something is anymore - it actually has to have some true resonance for it to have value. If you have got something there that you can truly demonstrate its worth both as a material and technique, then people understand the price, understand the time, and understand your thinking in terms of how you might make something, and why it has to be made in a certain way.
Leather Floor in Selfridges by Bill Amberg
AL: Do you think we are at any risk of losing traditional craft skills?
BA: No I really don’t. There is a very strong case for this, with things like the Heritage Craft Association really growing in strength and credibility. The rise in the decorative crafts is becoming increasingly strong. Part of the reason for mentoring these companies is to try and get them to make money, to try and make them realise that there IS a way to make a living out of making things.
AL: Do you think the issue then is that the skills are there but the problem lies in a lack of business acumen and support?
BA: Definitely, there is a gap in knowing how to make craft financially viable. That’s where the government should be putting their energy in terms of showing a pathway for people to make it viable. That’s the way to get young business growing and developing, and it’s very important.
The Rivet Stool by Bill Amberg
AL: Do you do any tutoring or mentoring yourself?
BA: We do leather mentoring here with the apprentice program we have in the studio, but I also do a mentoring program for young crafts based businesses across the board of materials. I have looked after 8 or 9 businesses, mentoring them until such a time as they are flying on their own, it’s very rewarding.
AL: Can you tell us about any projects you are working on at the minute?
BA: We’re now developing three pieces of furniture, all in completely different directions. We have developed one called the Stack Table, which I think is really beautiful, and a structural bit of leather work called the Rivet stool, which is a self supporting leather stool. We have also developed the seating we designed for the shard, which we have now turned into a range of seating called the Commons collection, which is a hand stitched bench and stool.