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 lasts four times as long as fabric, according to American Leather, which creates furniture in fabric and leather for stores including Crate & Barrel, Design Within Reach and Macy's.
"Try to tear this," said Lonnie McDonald, 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 served as liaison between the American furniture and cleaning industries to rewrite labels on leather care.
The leather in McDonald's hands is resistant. "It has a tensile strength of more than 200 pounds per square inch," he noted. "So yes, it's durable."
Doctors also recommend leather furniture for allergy sufferers because fabric harbors dust mites. Besides swapping carpet for tile or wood flooring, the Mayo Clinic's website recommends replacing fabric-upholstered items such as sofas, chairs and headboards with leather.
The look and feel of leather are the characteristics that draw most people. For more than two decades, Steve Maturo has sold leather furniture at Museo, a store in Kansas City, Mo. He has a 20-year-old black leather sofa and Mario Bellini leather dining chairs in his own home.
"They get better and better-looking with age," Maturo said.
In Europe, leather is used in wall coverings, flooring, tables and even countertops. Maturo and his employees have toured leather furniture factories in Italy and the Netherlands. The experience has given him an appreciation for how each cowhide is unique, similar to fingerprints and wood grains. Under a magnifying glass, you can even see pores.
Leather is so comfortable and soothing because it is skin, McDonald said. 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.
What you should know
However, leather furniture is not for everyone. For starters, it costs 25 percent to 50 percent more than fabric upholstery. On the plus side, leather can simply be wiped off. McDonald appreciates the positive characteristics of leather and owns a leather sofa with fabric seat cushions. Over the years he has learned the tricks of the trade and is now teaching others. For example, if a ballpoint pen leaves a tiny 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 and protect it from body oil stains on head and arm rests.
"Leather is the Mercedes of furniture," he said. "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 said.
Customers are looking for more environmentally friendly furniture. Modern tanneries now use closed-water systems and private water treatment plants to prevent the pollution of surrounding water supplies. At American Leather, the dying process involves water-based products that are chrome-free.