A conversation with Bill Amberg

This month we focus leather and there are few here in the UK who know more about the material than Bill Amberg.

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Having set-up Bill Amberg Studio some thirty years ago the brand is now recognised as an industry leader in bespoke leather products, furniture and interiors. Perhaps that shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise – Bill was born and raised in Northampton, the once capital of cobblers, and with it leather. The versatility of the material, coupled with hands on training in the diverse craft of leatherwork has made it a mainstay throughout Bill’s career.

A trustee of Cockpit Arts the National Leather Collection Bill has also been awarded an honorary doctorates from University of the Arts, London and University of Northampton for dedication to education in leather craft and ultimately the material itself.

Recent developments in digital printing technology now means that imagery can be printed onto entire hides, something that the studio has embraced with a series of collaborations with high profile designers including Timorous Beasties, Alexandra Champalimaud and Faye Toogood.

I had a chat with Bill to find out more about that project, early aspirations and Bill’s love of the material.

JB: Like me, you started out in Northampton, the once cobbler capital of the world; did this influence your early development?

BA: I think it certainly played at part. My father ran the Express lift company in Northampton, one of the many industries sadly to have disappeared from the Northampton map. It was through his friends in the shoe industry that I got my first machines, a skive and a sewing machine from Crockett & Jones. My mother, an architect, used to collect leather scraps from the market and bring them home for me to make my first leather items, hideous handbags and purses for her and my sister!

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JB: They might be worth a bit now! But am I right in thinking that whilst your grounding in leather was in Northampton, your formal training happened outside of the UK?

BA: Well, yes. I studied at the school of life and did leatherwork apprenticeships in Australia. Gay Wilson in Adelaide took me under her wing and taught me my craft. She demanded perfection but also gave me the space to explore the material and it’s possibilities. By 1984 I was back in the UK and set up my first studio at the Waterside Workshop in London’s Rotherhithe. A commission to create a bespoke leather floor for an architectural practice brought the Bill Amberg Studio formally into being that very year.

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JB: And of course, you didn’t remain a one-man band, working alone in isolation; and your team are important to you I believe?

BA: Indeed they are! In the years that followed, work in architecture and interiors grew in parallel with bag design, eventually becoming the bulk of my business, which meant that I had to employ more people. We have four full time leatherworkers now, each of whom come from different leatherworking backgrounds, so these skills are shared within the team and they work hand in hand with our talented design team. We are now based in a charming old industrial building in West London that’s full of character but with great light and good working space, making work a joy.

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JB: It sounds like an exciting environment to be in, one where everybody has some creative input.

BA: I like to think so. Collaboration is at the heart of our business, from concept and design, right through to delivery. Our clients approach us for our modern, considered aesthetic, and trust us to guide them through the making process. The aim of everything we do as a team is to produce innovative work that’s built to last a lifetime.

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JB: Well my Bill Amberg bicycle saddle is testament to that! But you’ve also worked with some big name designers for your new printed leather surfaces this year. Can you tell me a bit more about the project?

BA: We launched Bill Amberg Print during the London Design Festival and it’s a new development in leather decoration. Whilst gilding, embossing and painting of leather have been around for millennia, we can now digitally print onto hides with stunning clarity and rich colour, whilst retaining the natural character and grain of the material. To show this to it’s fullest potential we invited five designers to create unique and absolutely incredible artwork. So now we have leather that looks like super-modern dichroic film, lace and watercolour paintings.

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JB: It’s such an exciting development for the material and opens up so many exciting doors for the leather industry. Have you managed to squeeze in any other work alongside it?

BA: This year we have been involved in two of London’s most important building commissions. At the Royal Academy we worked with David Chipperfield to create the seating for the new lecture theatre. And, the Westminster Abbey Diamond Jubilee Galleries, where we worked with Muma architecture to create a pair of double-sided leather curtain used to protect the exhibits from natural light.

For more information about Bill Amberg Studio and the Print collection visit www.billamberg.com

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About Jim Biddulph

Jim is our material specialist, conducting ongoing research around cutting-edge surface materials. He is also the founder of Here You Are Studio, and is a lecturer at Buckingham New University.
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