In Conversation: Maharam Design Studio
Comprised of designers, engineers, and product development coordinators, the Maharam Design Studio collectively develops Maharam’s comprehensive collection of textiles for commercial and residential interiors. With offices that once housed George Nelson & Associates, the New York–based studio balances an appreciation of history with innovative interdisciplinary exploration. Having recently expanded its creative reach to leather, the studio shares some of the influences that shaped its inaugural collection of eight styles in one hundred colors.
What were some of your initial goals as you set out to design this collection?
MDS: We wanted to elevate and explore the materiality of leather by creating a collection of styles that are minimally finished. As a counter to heavily processed leather that has been sanded, coated in pigment, or otherwise manipulated to appear uniform, we were drawn to the idea of highlighting the features of leather that differentiate it from synthetic materials. We wanted to preserve its organic variations and natural characteristics and to recognize the unique aspects of every hide. As leather was one of the earliest materials ever used, we wanted to develop our own material language and expression within its larger, historical context.
Could you say more about the inherent features? Why are they significant?
MDS: To varying degrees, our leathers preserve natural markings like backbone impressions, wrinkles, insect bites, scars, and scratches that occurred during the animal’s life. We view these aspects as part of the inherent beauty of leather and chose to deliberately honor them as intrinsic signifiers of quality. This approach was only possible because we worked with the highest-quality raw materials available.
How did you determine the types of leather you wanted to highlight? What criteria did you use?
MDS: We started in Western Europe, since that region has the most premium upholstery leather to offer due to its veterinary practices, abundance of open space, and climate. We wanted to offer a range of styles, so we selected tanneries based on their specialties—essentially who could provide the best of each quality we desired—while also considering our stringent criteria for environmental and humane practices. We ended up with a small group of tanneries in northern Italy and Spain. The rest of the process was largely intuitive. Having reviewed hundreds of hides, there were certain leathers that we all gravitated to immediately, and, for the most part, these are the styles that made it into the final collection.
Since the goal was to interfere with the leather as little as possible, how did you determine which finishing processes to employ?
MDS: One of the consistent themes in our work is that we try to let the materials speak for themselves. From our development of Alpaca Velvet to Tek-Wall, this concept has guided our process. The same approach applies here. We didn’t determine the finishing processes in advance; we let each leather’s qualities guide its treatment—essentially highlighting specific features of a hide while keeping as light a hand as possible.
What was your approach to developing the palette? What were some of your visual reference points as you began to develop the color line?
MDS: One thing we did was to look at many different pieces of furniture upholstered in leather, just to get a sense of how leather looks and behaves once upholstered. Our research included color in fashion, while also broadly referencing art and design. We have an independent approach to color and felt free to take risks. In this case, we let each style dictate a certain color direction while considering the collection as a whole. For example, soft, brushed textures wanted to be dusky and subtle; smooth, pressed leathers saturated and vibrant; pebbled surfaces rich and natural. We primarily used transparent dyes with the occasional application of light pigment in order to achieve various levels of saturation. Even though our color direction is bold, we were careful not to overpower the natural features that we’re so interested in.
How do you imagine people will interact with these products?
MDS: We hope the collection will be appreciated for offering an alternative approach to leather—a material to be embraced as one that evolves over time. We hope our collection will be used to enhance any environment that requires a thoughtfully developed, natural, and individual surface.