Don’t be bilked by bonded leather!

You know what’s crummy? Like really, really crummy? The fact that “leather” doesn’t always mean what one would assume it should.





 Black leather sofaDesign by Paul Barbera.





So this is my decorating public service announcement to you–so you may never be duped by the (often misleading) words “100% Genuine Leather”!





When JB and I pooled our furniture in anticipation of cohabitation, I was thrilled that he came with a leather sofa that was only two years old. I equated leather with luxury, longevity, and that Ralph Lauren style I had long coveted. But, a year later, what had once been the star of our living room started shedding like a molting snake.




Peeling leather sofaI wasn’t kidding, huh?




First, a tiny strip threatened to peel off the seat. Within a month, there were more wispy flakes of sofa “skin” littering our living room than on the actual sofa. Eventually we banished the blistered behemoth to the curb and cashed in our garbage service’s once-a-year heavy item haul-away. Flummoxed–since when does leather furniture shed?–and suddenly minus a sofa–I was determined to figure out what had happened.




Brown Leather Sofa 2See the patina on the sofa above? It’s an indication that the leather is real.





Have you noticed how inexpensive leather sofas have become? This is your first clue! If a sofa labeled “real leather” is a smoking deal, it is likely a hot potato and you should walk out of that store right now!





While technological advances have often changed life for the better, sometimes they give us bunk. Witness: two cheap materials that have flooded the market, look a lot like leather, are often tagged “real leather”–but are anything but. If you’re considering purchasing a leather sofa, please arm yourself with this information, first.






Brown leather sofa gallery wall




Bonded, reconstituted, or blended leather: Culprit number one goes by any of the aforementioned names. It’s made from scrap leather that is shredded into pulp, dyed, combined with a synthetic bonding agent, then sprayed onto sheets of fiber or paper backing. These sheets are then embossed with a leather pattern and, presto, you have bonded leather.





Buyer beware: While the percentage of pulverized leather fibers in this finished product can run anywhere from 10-70% , since the portion that is leather is 100% real, bonded leather products often claim to be “100% genuine leather”. Like adding a drop of fresh squeezed orange juice into a bottle of water and labeling the bottle “100% real orange juice” in reference to the single drop, it’s semantics and it’s shady advertising.






Modern leather sofa




Bicast, bycast, split or PU (referring to its polyurethane coating) leather: A single intact hide can be split into as many as four usable layers. Split leather takes one of these center layers (the top-grain goes to a higher-end product) to create, not a top surface, but a lowly backing. Sadly the one portion of this “leather” that is real is rendered invisible as it is laminated in colored polyurethane and embossed to fool you.





Chesterfield Sofa and Stag HeadCote de Texas





Why not?: I admit, faux leather sofas look good at first, cost far less than top-grain leather (until you factor in replacing them after a couple of years), and clean up like a dream (because they are made with plastic polymer or sprayed with plastic!) so why wouldn’t you want to own one? Uh, did you miss my intro? They are synthetic–as such, they can off-gas–and they make a mess on your floor. Unlike real leather which improves with age as it softens, becomes more supple, and develops a patina, faux leather can blister, crack and peel as soon as within the first year–especially when placed near a window with direct sun exposure. In contrast to real leather which can be repaired or passed on as a family heirloom or resold, when faux leather starts to fail, there’s no saving it. Congratulations, you just added a sofa to the landfill.







Black leather sofa 2Digs and design belong to the über talented Ellen Degeneres and Portia De Rossi. I’m going to go out on a short limb here and say I bet theirs is real.





How to detect the difference: Consider price, reputation of the company you’re buying from, (avoid the often less-than-scrupulous discount furniture emporiums) and feel: real leather has less give and is stiffer than either bonded or bicast leather. Beyond that, demand that your salesperson tell you the truth!





Chesterfield and bookshelves




If you already have faux leather sofa: The good news is you likely got it for a song and it wipes clean. So while you have it, let’s keep it looking good. Place it in a dimly lit room where it will hardly be used and you’ll have a rich look for a bargain price. Prolong its life by avoiding positioning it in direct sunlight (such as under a window) or near a radiator or fireplace where the heat will accelerate its decomposition.




Restoration Hardware ChesterfieldRestoration Hardware’s chesterfield sofa.





Maintaining the real deal: If you have a real leather sofa, wipe up spots and spills immediately: blot don’t rub. Do not use soap. Period. Use minimal water and only distilled, at that, since water can cause more damage to leather than the stain you want to remove. Wipe grease or oil spots, then leave them and hopefully they will dissipate. (Baking soda helps wick up oil stains. ) Avoid placing leather furniture near air conditioners, radiators, fireplaces, or in areas of prolonged sunshine (think skylights), or, over time, your leather will crack and fade. Reputable purveyors of leather, such as Restoration Hardware, also sell their own products to both clean and condition the leather. Don’t skip this: maintenance is a must!





Brown leather sofa





In other words, don’t let this happen to you…






Bonded leather sofaBye, bye beast: our bonded leather sofa waiting to be hauled away where it will live the rest of its days surrounded by banana peels and soiled synthetic diapers. 🙁







Brown leather sofa 3Note the tear on the sofa arm, above. The front panels are stained enough to make me think this one is real since the plastic element of bonded or bicast leather generally repels moisture and, thus, prevents staining.




Okay, we need to go out on a happy note; otherwise, my design public service announcement seems a bit depressing. So here’s a bit of good news. Jack in the Box is now selling their own version of a cronut (croissant doughnut). And while I’m sure there is no comparison between their cronut and the real ones (that come with filling) that people wait in line for for hours at Dominique Ansel’s bakery in New York City, this thing hit the spot for 89 cents each versus the $5 per at Dominque’s (not to mention the price of airfare!). One might argue this would be the equivalent of eating a bonded or bicast cronut, but with this good deal, the only thing that littered my floor was the tasty cinnamon sugar coating that fell from the doughy goodness as I ripped it apart and shoved it into my mouth. Just sayin’, you might want to try one.





Note: this post was adapted from my column Design Intervention which runs in the Santa Barbara News-Press.





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4 Comments on Don’t be bilked by bonded leather!

  1. Dirk
    October 27, 2014 at 12:05 AM (7 years ago)

    Lesson learned. I have an office chair….. That is bonded.

    • Kisha Gianni
      October 27, 2014 at 11:28 AM (7 years ago)

      Well, I hope it doesn’t look as bad as our sofa did! 🙂

  2. Ronna
    October 27, 2014 at 1:33 PM (7 years ago)

    We bought a top grain leather sofa 17 years ago and it still looks brand new in spite of 4 boxer dogs, three cross pacific moves and three kids trying their best to destroy it. I am so glad we did! We accidently bought a “bonded leather” sofa to place in our formal living room when we lived in Spokane and it was a disaster. It was scratched to heck in a week.

    The other hint I would add for your readers is to ask the sales person if the leather is drum dried or not. If it is, than if it does get scratched, it hardly shows because the dye goes all the way through the leather (and also indicates real leather vs pieced together stuff). It may cost a little bit more but it lasts FOREVER!!

    • Kisha Gianni
      October 27, 2014 at 1:42 PM (7 years ago)

      That is a great tip about it being “drum dried”. Thanks!! 🙂


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