Art & Design Interiors & Design

Every Stitch Counts: Q&A with Leather Artisan Bill Amberg

One of the world’s foremost leather designers, Bill Amberg talks to Luxury Defined about his enduring passion for this most elegant and versatile of materials, and how his latest line incorporates digital printing

Bill Amberg has spent more than 30 years crafting accessories and interior design wares for individual and commercial clients around the world. Chosen by many of the world’s foremost architects and designers, including David Chipperfield and Adam Hunter, he’s the man to contact if you’re considering installing a leather banquette, some paneling, or even flooring in your own home.

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Leather artisan Bill Amberg in his studio in west London. Banner image: David Cleveland

You’ve spent your whole career working with leather. When did you fall in love with it?

When I first touched it, I think. We were a really arty-crafty household. My father, my grandfather, and my mum were always making things, and I was encouraged to do the same. I did woodwork, and made things in metal, but the day my mum, an architect, brought home some leather remnants for me to stitch, was really the start of something new. I connected with it on a deeper level, and was fascinated by its versatility, endurance, and beauty.

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Bill Amberg has worked for high-profile private and commercial clients, including a lecture theater at London's Royal Academy. Image: Simon Menges

Did you have any formal training?

Turning my passion into a career was an organic process. After I left school, I did some apprenticeships in leatherwork and then went traveling, working in shoe-repair shops throughout Australia and New Zealand. I realized that learning on the job wasn’t going to give me the finesse I desired, so I trained with Gay Wilson, at Canberra University, who was extremely rigorous about technique, and who really opened my mind to the infinite possibilities of working with leather. People tend to think of leather in terms of fashion accessories, but if you go back through history you’ll see that it was used for flooring, desks, lamps, book binding, and more. It can be shiny or silky, grainy or smooth; it can look like bronze or wood; it can be gilded or burnished; and it can be painted or printed. I never stop learning about and being amazed by it.

My aesthetic is simple and strong; elegant and timeless. I look to create pieces that will be loved through the generations rather than designing for fads or fashions

In the 1980s, your name was synonymous with luxury bags, but today your designs are more likely to be found in the home. How did you make this transition?

I came back to the UK in the ’80s and started my own studio. I really wanted to develop new ways of working with leather, so I started to work with architects—initially on furniture but then, in 1986, I designed my first leather floor. The inspiration for that came from seeing a photograph of Joseph Beuys—one of my favorite artists—in his studio, surrounded by leather and working on a leather floor. It really triggered something in me.

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This minimalist Rivet Stool is an example of one of Bill Amberg's furniture projects for private clients.

What is it about leather that works so well in the home?

The first person who commissioned a leather floor from me has since moved several times. And each time, we’ve lifted that original floor and refitted it in her new home. Each time it’s looked lovelier. That’s the other thing about leather—it gets more and more beautiful as it ages.

How do bespoke commissions work?

Our process is very much a collaborative one. Sometimes when I meet a client, it becomes clear that we have very different ideas, but if we do decide to proceed, then of course there are regular discussions with clients and I’ll invite them to come to my studio in London. In a private residence in London’s Notting Hill the brief was to soften the look of the Modernist interiors, so we made a leather sideboard for the kitchen, molded the balustrade handrail—which runs the length of the six-floor building—with dark brown leather, and also clad the front door in bridle leather.

The more I work with [leather], the more I appreciate that it really has no limits.

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Bill Amberg worked with interior designer Adam Hunter on a private residence outside of Nashville, Tennessee. Amberg lined the walls of this elegant lounge with soft, dyed-blue leather.

You’ve recently created some digitally printed leathers, in collaboration with the likes of Marcel Wanders, Tom Dixon, and Lisa Miller. Tell us about this.

The technique of printing on leather took years to perfect, but I was determined to succeed. I wanted to take leatherwork to a new level and to see it in an entirely new context. Initially, the results were disappointing, but I worked with my tannery and we found a leather that could accept the digital ink really well, and developed a different technique for printing. We succeeded in producing extraordinarily beautiful hides that can be used widely in interior architecture and furniture.

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Leather artisan Bill Amberg has collaborated with a series of designers—including Marcel Wanders—for his latest line of digitally printed leathers. Image: David Cleveland

What do you say to those who think it cruel to use leather?

Obviously, everyone is entitled to their point of view and it’s not my intention to persuade them otherwise. What I will say, though, is that all the hides I use are a by-product of the meat industry. I will never, ever, use leather from an animal that was killed for its skin. Second, leather is durable and long-lasting. Plastics and faux leathers are less hardwearing and difficult or impossible to repair. They have a short working life, and an infinitely long one once they reach landfill. There needs to be full transparency at all levels, from abattoirs and craftspeople, to tanneries and, of course, clients. Everyone must strive for the highest standards, and everyone must be accountable.