Bill Amberg’s brief history of leather

A chicken-skin sculpture by Kari Furre

Bill Amberg’s brief history of leather

Words Mark Hooper

Photographs David Cleveland

For London Craft Week, the leatherware designer joins the dots of inspiration as he unveils Leather – Then And Now…

Inspired by his lifelong passion for leather, Bill Amberg has curated a show for London Craft Week 2018 that compares and contrasts archive pieces from The National Leather Collection in Northampton – dating as far back as Ancient Roman times – with examples of contemporary, cutting-edge design.

Amberg – ‘probably the most celebrated designer/craftsman working in leather right now’ according to Philip Warner (Curator of The National Leather Collection) – has cleverly matched pieces to highlight how this hugely adaptable material that has evolved with our own needs.

More than simply presenting them as museum pieces, this fascinating show explores how these artefacts continue to inform present-day innovative design: so the multi-layered construction of Roman caliga – the sandal that the legionaries marched across Europe in – has echoes in the high-impact technology of the Altberg Men’s Defender Combat Boot (the current UK Military Issue footwear).


An 1850 crocodile shoe (left) belonging to Sir Philip de Malpas Grey Egerton, 10th Baronet, eminent palaentologist and Member of Parliament, beside a modern Men’s Black Oxford Shoe by Mariano

An 1850 crocodile shoe (left) belonging to Sir Philip de Malpas Grey Egerton, 10th Baronet, eminent palaentologist and Member of Parliament, beside a modern Men’s Black Oxford Shoe by Mariano


No longer do we need to carry oversized documents and paper bills as in Samuel Pepys’ day – instead, our documents are saved electronically in tablets, phones and laptops, which need their own cases or to be considered in the design of modern bags. Likewise, our luggage is no longer intended to be transported by ocean liner but instead requires ingenious expandable spaces to satisfy the carry-on allowance of air travel.

Similarly, today’s grand houses no longer have porter’s chairs for their gatekeepers – but instead, we require comfortable seating for waiting rooms and receptions. Today, the height of luxury isn’t to be carried through the streets in a sedan chair, but rather in the ergonomic seat of a Rolls-Royce Phantom.


Japanese Samurai tatami-do gusoku armour

Japanese Samurai tatami-do gusoku armour


A beautifully preserved, (almost) complete example of Japanese Samurai tatami-do gusoku armour (above) sits alongside its modern equivalent, a Leon Paul Fencing Mask and Gilet which. Like its Japanese counterpart, this has always used leather as a key element of its construction – the material provides good traction for the points of fencing swords, allowing fencers to practice hitting accurately with more consistency than on surfaces offering less friction.

The show boasts curiosities old and new – from Samuel Pepys’ wallet to Kari Furre’s unique chicken-skin sculpture – and all is put together with wit and playfulness: the elaborate decoration of a Native American buckskin men’s shirt from the 19th century is juxtaposed with the advertising patches and logos of a Vanson flat-track motorcycle racing jacket.


Leather – Then And Now is at the Leathersellers’ Hall, 7 St Helen’s Place, EC3A 6AB from 9-12 May

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