KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Whether it resembles a well-traveled saddle or a buttery-smooth burst of cherry red or lime green, leather furniture is classic and strong.
As upholstery, leather can last four times as long as fabric, according to American Leather. The Dallas-based manufacturer creates furniture in fabric and leather for stores including Crate & Barrel, Design Within Reach and Macy's.
"Try to tear this," says Lonnie McDonald of Grandview, Mo., holding a tanned leather hide. He cleans, repairs and refinishes leather furniture and leads maintenance sessions for the Leather Pro division of the Textile Care Group. He has been a liaison between the American furniture and cleaning industries to rewrite instruction labels for leather care.
The leather in his hands "has a tensile strength of more than 200 pounds per square inch," McDonald says. "So yes, it's durable."
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Doctors recommend leather furniture for allergy sufferers because fabric can harbor dust mites. Besides swapping carpet for tile or wood flooring, the Mayo Clinic's Web site recommends replacing fabric-upholstered items including sofas, chairs and headboards with leather.
Leather is comfortable and soothing because it is skin, McDonald says. Through the natural process of transpiration, leather absorbs and releases moisture through fibers and pores. Leather can absorb and release about 15 percent of its weight in water. And it becomes more supple and comfortable with use.
Leather furniture isn't for everyone. For starters, it costs 25 percent to 50 percent more than fabric upholstery. Because of the expense and lifestyle considerations, interior designer Sallie Kytt Redd of Lenexa, Kan., isn't a fan.
"Buckles in children's shoes can scratch and puncture it," she says. "In the summer, if you have bare legs, it can feel sticky, even in an air-conditioned room. And it's not cuddly and warm in the winter; it's stiff. I don't have many clients who use leather."
On the plus side, Redd says, leather can be wiped off, and it looks nice. Occasionally a client will insist on leather. One bought a dark smoky-blue leather lounge chair and ottoman that were things of beauty.
"But a year later, I got a call from the client who said he needed a different chair, something in fabric," Redd says. "Leather is slippery. If you have posture issues, it just doesn't allow you to sit straight up."
McDonald appreciates the positive characteristics of leather and owns a leather sofa with fabric seat cushions. Over the years, he has learned the secrets of maintenance and is now teaching others. For example, if a ballpoint pen leaves an ink mark on nubuck leather, you can lightly sand it and feather it out to camouflage the stain. (Don't try this on aniline or pigmented leathers.)
The biggest problem McDonald sees is that people tend not to clean their leather or protect it from body oil stains on headrests and arm rests.
"Leather is the Mercedes of furniture," he says. "My dad was a mechanic, and he taught me that when you take care of a car, it lasts longer."
Although leather is a luxury product, sales were up 20 percent in 2011 at American Leather, spokeswoman Jennifer Green says.
Customers are looking for more environmentally friendly furniture. Modern tanneries now use closed-water systems and private water treatment plants to prevent pollution of water supplies. At American Leather, the dying process involves water-based products that are chrome-free.
Trends in leather include gray as a neutral, and metallic and pearl finishes.
And cowhide in furniture upholstery and rugs transcends Wild West looks.
"They add texture and warmth whether they're in downtown lofts, (suburban) houses or country kitchens," says Fancy Smith, owner of Cactus Creek, a home-furnishings store in Weston, Mo.
Cowhide rugs at the store are typically $250. "They're good on their own or as a layer with another rug on carpet," Smith says.
High-quality versions can take a beating, too. She has spilled red wine and food on them, which can be wiped off with a damp rag and then vacuumed. When a customer spilled hot wax on a rug, Smith removed it with a fine-tooth comb.
"They look so beautiful and exotic," Smith says. "But they come from cows that we see every day."