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What you don't know about leather
Nothing says luxury like leather. That's the gospel according to business jet interior designers and many of their customers.
As a seat covering, leather wraps the passenger in butter-soft comfort. On bulkheads and sidewalls, leather softens the shine of exotic wood veneers and polished metals. Instead of screaming "money," the cabin softly whispers "success."
"Leather breathes," said John Edelman, president of Edelman Leather in New Milford, Conn. "No other material even remotely resembles it."
It would be easy to say that leather is simply leather. It would also be wrong. It's more than just cowhide, or what's left after the sirloin, ribs, porterhouse and brisket have been shipped off to Spago.
The best of the best begins in fields where the fencing is electric; barbed wire offers an effective enclosure for cattle but also damages the hides, which must undergo a complex tanning process.
Worldwide, there are perhaps a dozen major providers of fine leather for private aircraft cabins. These providers typically contract with a European tannery for the hides.
Leather is very comfortable as a seat covering and exceptionally durable. Experts generally agree that the best leather is a full-grain, pure aniline-dye product. "Full grain" means that its source is only the finest natural hides; that only the hair has been removed; and that the hide has not been sanded to remove imperfections. Aniline dyeing is a process accomplished in a drum to ensure that dye soaks evenly through the piece and produces a consistent color.
Speaking of color, most leather sources offer a wide range, but the most popular choices for a private jet interior remain variants of light taupe or cream. They give the cabin a luxurious look without reducing resale value, said Kristin Opp, manager of aviation services at Spinneybeck in Getzville, N.Y.
Spinneybeck has a line of "hand-tipped" leather that has a natural grain and base coat of pigment. The raised, or hand-tipped, portion of the grain accepts a darker color. The company started with eight color combinations and now offers 34.
All cabin leather must meet FAA flame-retardant and burn standards, and most have a stain-resistant chemical additive. Townsend Leather of Johnstown, N.Y., uses 3M's trademarked Scotchgard on almost all of its aircraft leathers, while Edelman employs a product called Crypton. Presumably, any leather that can keep Superman at bay will protect fabric from crayon-wielding five-year-olds.
"Nowadays, embossing, customized dyeing, stitching patterns and hand-rubbed finishes are very popular," said Marianna Rivera, group leader for interior design for the Global business jet line at Bombardier Business Jets. "We've had people ask for leather customized to match a particular purse or briefcase. We even had a customer who showed us his rattlesnake boots and wanted his airplane done in a similar pattern."
At Townsend Leather, hand rubbing-a frequent request- is often applied to an embossed leather to create an accent finish. The company unveiled a new line of seven embossed patterns and 11 pastel colors at the Aircraft Interiors Expo 2008 in Hamburg, Germany, in April. Edelman Leather, meanwhile, launched a "super-soft" American Indian leather collection this spring that has "a vintage look."
Exotic leathers are increasing in popularity, particularly as trim: ostrich and stingray, eel and alligator-even yak and kangaroo. Most have limited use as a single hide or skin from the critters offer insufficient square inches to cover a seat-much less a bulkhead, sidewall or overhead panel. On the other hand, said Rivera, Bombardier did manage to do a large, decorative bulkhead insert panel of eel skins, "dyed and stitched together very, very carefully."
Townsend, meanwhile, recently introduced four hand-rubbed leathers dyed to replicate "the richness and depth" of the wrappers on four Arturo Fuente cigars. Now the two companies are considering a Townsend/Fuente custom aircraft interior. Not only will it feature Townsend leathers; Fuente expects to create a cigar specially blended for the owner.
Kirby Harrison welcomes comments and suggestions at: