Patent leather lends shine to upholstery

Glossy and durable, it can be glamorous if not overdone. It gives accent pieces a modern feel.

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Patent leather works well in such applications as the seat and cushion for a Louis XV chair, left, and, in white, on an ottoman.

The stuff that put the gloss on your Mary Janes is now adding a little glitz to the home. Patent leather has sauntered into our living spaces, lending gleam to accent pieces, accessories and even upholstery.

It's still a niche product, but some designers think it's coming into its own.

In most applications, patent leather plays a supporting role, the same way the perfect piece of jewelry puts that finishing touch on an outfit, furniture designer James Stuart Duncan says.

But this supporting player has the potential to steal the show. It's glossy. It's glamorous. It's almost downright decadent.

New York furniture designer Mariana Antinori started incorporating patent leather into her line about a year ago, after seeing the shimmery skin on shoes, belts, raincoats and just about every fashion accessory imaginable.

It adds a hint of richness and modern style to a room, "a little bit more of a flair," Antinori says. She's wrapped it around mirror frames, woven strips of it into a bench seat, and upholstered an ottoman in it, which she accented with nailhead trim.

Patent leather also is an easily cleanable surface; just a spritz of Windex takes care of it, says Joel Wolfgang of Studio W Interior Design Group. He's put patent leather on ottomans in heavily used settings like family rooms, as well as on barstools, where its shimmer lightens the heavy structure of the bar.

In limited use, patent adds a bit of gleam and "allows you not to take things so seriously," Wolfgang says. Too much, though, and the look becomes akin to a cheap pair of shoes.

Patent leather is treated with an impermeable finish to give it a hard surface and a high gloss. The finish makes it highly durable but not particularly comfortable for seating, so patent leather is often limited to accent pieces.

Duncan, however, went out on a design limb by using it to upholster a sofa - in hot orange, no less. But that was mainly a vehicle for attracting the attention of the interior designers who make up the market for his business, based in Palm Beach, Fla.

Patent leather's stiffness makes it hard to use for upholstery, says Duncan, who sometimes substitutes vinyl, depending on the application. The back of the leather must be shaved to create corners, and that weakens the material, he explains.

"It's not necessarily something I recommend for furniture that people will use on a daily basis," he says.

Rather, he thinks it's best on smaller, lesser-used pieces - attention-getters like his graceful Louis XV chair with a seat and back cushion covered in black patent. Duncan says it's been a popular seller among his designer clients, even at a cost to them of $2,200.

What makes the chair work is the juxtaposition of the patent leather, which has a decidedly modern feel, with the chair's highly traditional form. The combination allows the piece to work in a contemporary setting, he says.

Then there's that hint of danger. "I think there's a certain bad-boy element" that attracts people to the chair, Duncan says. "There's something a little seductive about it."

Patent leather may be a bit of a drama queen in some applications, but designer Candice Olson is out to tame its temperamental ways. The HGTV star recently introduced faux patent in her collection for Norwalk Furniture.

The imitation patent used on Olson's furniture, a product called Patine from Ultrafabrics, has a polyurethane surface and a rayon backing. It's not as glossy as real patent leather, but it's more supple, more breathable, and silkier to the touch. And from a furniture maker's standpoint, it's easier to work with on upholstery.

Patine is also durable and easy to clean, says Debbie McKirahan, Norwalk's creative director - perhaps just the combination that could make patent leather appeal to the masses.

Olson is making the faux patent available on most pieces in her collection. Initially, only black was available, but two additional colors, bittersweet chocolate and white, are being introduced.

The designer chose the material for its ability to bring light, energy and just plain fun into a room, McKirahan says.

"She feels every room needs that sparkle. . . . It will be a statement piece, a conversation piece."

For all its glamour, Antinori says, she found patent leather a difficult sell initially. Some designers just don't find it to their liking.

But it has caught on in Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami, where what she calls the "cold hotel look" is trendy. In that kind of setting, patent leather adds a retro '70s feel while still maintaining a modern edge, she says.

Antinori thinks that patent leather's star is rising and that we'll be seeing more of it in the home in the next couple of seasons.


For more information, visit www.norwalkfurniture.com, www.marianaantinori.com, and www.jamesstuartduncan.com (Duncan sells through showrooms open only to the design trade).

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