‘These are the healed scars from where the cattle have dragged themselves through bushes,' says designer Bill Amberg as he points to the marks on a new range of furniture made by his studio in collaboration with the Knepp Estate in Sussex. ‘And that’s absolutely perfect, because we want every piece of furniture to be different from the next.' Renowned for an audacious rewilding project started some 20 years ago, the Knepp Estate’s 3,500 acres have been allowed to return to nature and its cattle to roam the land freely throughout the seasons. ‘Their animals, deer, and pigs and cattle, don't come inside in the winter and don’t get any artificial feed,' explains Amberg. ‘They go into the woods in the winter and, in the summer they come out and go back into the meadows.'
When the idea was first floated about doing something with the skins of the longhorn cattle and deer from the estate, the Burrell family, who own it, thought they could make leather from the hides. It was Amberg who suggested going one step further and making something special and bespoke out of the material that was true to the estate’s ethos. Fast forward to a new capsule collection launched during the London Design Festival 2022, made out of leather from the estate that will be used in a new cafe restaurant due to open on the site in Spring 2023 and also sold separately on the Bill Amberg website.
Bill Amberg's furniture for the Knepp Estate
The quality of the leather from the animals on the Knepp Estate is second to none explains Amberg. The skins from commercial beef production, where the animals live indoors, never walk anywhere and are fed lots of cheap food and slaughtered very young, creates thin, veiny skins that have no character. ‘When you look at a really beautiful animal skin, it’s very evident how that animal has lived, and how healthy it is.' Also, unbeknownst to most of us, 90% of commercially made leather has a pigmented finish, which essentially means the top surface is sanded and treated with a filler and then sanded again until smooth and the grain printed back on the surface. This is the case even for well-known luxury brands.
For this collection the skins were tanned in two tanneries in the UK, and tanned using tree bark and finished with a simple wax, which will encourage a natural patination over time and use. One of the tanneries, which is located in Bristol, specialises in shoe sole leather and was ideal for working the leather so it could be used structurally. ‘One of the things I am very interested in,' says Amberg, ‘is taking the different techniques of leatherwork, which are principally bookbinding, saddlery, shoe making, case making and upholstery, and mashing them all up together. Taking an idea from saddlery and using it in upholstery, taking an idea from bookbinding and using it in architectural work. So scaling it up.'
In this case Amberg experimented with shoe sole leather as a furniture material as it is rigid and more like plywood than a supple material in this form. This was perfect for creating a collection composed of a chair, a stool (formed as a cylinder), and a tub chair with a curved back that has been simply waxed and pressed, as well as log baskets and, in order to use every last part of the hide, coasters. (The deer hides don’t feature in the collection but will be used to create upholstered pads for the banquette seating in the cafe).
The sustainability of the range comes full circle through its wooden elements and frame, which are made out of Ash wood collected from dieback clearance on the estate. The same timber is being used for the tables in the cafe, which are not part of the collection but nevertheless interesting. ‘The restaurant is going to be in a Sussex barn dating back to medieval times and being restored by a timber frame building expert,' says Amberg. ‘He has made the tables using an old medieval technique and design.‘
The beauty of this new furniture collection is not only that every piece is unique and will age differently but that it has sustainability built into it naturally. As Amberg says: ‘The conversation around the sustainability of the material is becoming more evident. That is why this particular project is so poignant because here is evidence of the material being used directly and appropriately.'
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