Bill Amberg, the English designer and merchant, knows that his leather sofas, satchels, and custom floors are not for everyone. "One of the joys of the material is how it changes," he says, "and people who are nervous about change fear that." Pity the stubborn souls who don't understand and appreciate that leather, like great wines and gardens, tends to improve with age. "When you walk on a floor, sit on a chair, pick up a bowl, it changes a little," says Amberg, who has shops in London's Notting Hill and New York's NoLIta. "All those little changes add up to a kind of history."
Amberg's own history has made him one of the leading authorities on leather in the world. Born in Northamptonshire, home of the traditional English shoe trade, he moved to Australia in the 1970s, where he apprenticed with saddlers, shoemakers, and casemakers. When he returned to London in 1982, he was ready to explore and exploit leather's potential. "It really is quite enjoyable to use," he says. "It's very versatile—it can be soft or hard. It can be sleek or more earthy and raw. Working with the tannery, I can develop skins that adapt to the changing tastes of fashion."
That leather has become so coveted is undoubtedly a reaction to our increasingly synthetic, high-tech world. "People are veering more toward natural materials like stone, wood, and leather," says Amberg. "They understand the benefits of living with things that have a life, character, and personality of their own." Amberg has made leather into a viable alternative for everything from desks and firewood baskets to wine racks and floors.
"A leather floor can go pretty much anywhere," says Amberg, who quite frequently collaborates with architects and designers on both commercial and residential interiors. "We have done several in Aspen, and we've done them in Switzerland, Sweden, and Hong Kong. We've done them in every room of the house. They're very quiet, dust-free, and warm."
Amberg practices what he preaches. "I put down a leather floor in the nursery for my kids," he reports. "They think the feel and touch is great." He has also designed diaper bags, a bridle-leather-and-sheepskin "papoose" for carrying babies, and a $2,000 leather-and-titanium stroller for Maclaren.
Surprisingly, Amberg has no immediate interest in creating leather coats and clothes. "I've got enough on my plate," he says. He doesn't, however, design exclusively in leather, which is a good thing, since mad cow and foot-and-mouth disease are wreaking havoc on the industry. "We're doing items in dyed parchment. We just developed a parquet floor tile using a water buffalo hide." Nevertheless, he believes that leather is eternal. "Even though there's a nostalgic element to leather," he says, "it remains a thoroughly modern material."
Bill Amberg, 230 Elizabeth St., New York, NY; 212-625-8556; www.billamberg.com.