I recently pulled this piece of imitation leather from storage to consider for an exhibition and was struck by the beauty of the material and craftsmanship. This is paper, a very heavy stock, which is embossed and printed to imitate an antique leather. The design is wood block printed, the paper is embossed with a coarse tanned leather texture, then glazed by hand to give it an antique appearance. As you can imagine, with all this hand work, these papers were quite expensive. The M.H. Birge Company in Buffalo, New York, excelled in the production of imitation leather papers, and produced a wide variety of designs from an antique look to those with a more contemporary styling.
Leather papers first appeared in the late nineteenth century and became widely popular during the Colonial Revival movement in the early twentieth century. Leather papers were produced across Europe, Japan and the United States. The papers produced in Japan have a rather distinctive look, as well as Japanese characters embossed in the selvage, but the other papers appear quite similar and it can be hard to distinguish between products from different countries.
One of the most striking features of the actual embossed leathers is the use of silver leaf covering the surface. This is coated with a layer of yellow varnish making it appear like gold. When this leaf catches the light it just glows. That look is copied here with the use of a metallic silver pigment. While I find this design quite striking, the linked medieval or Gothic medallions remind me of chainmail, I think the real beauty lies in the embossed paper. I’m sure this texture repeats at some point but the look is so organic, it’s hard to believe this is not actually leather, even when viewing the sample close up.
Sadly, the Birge Company is no more, but there are still manufacturers producing imitation leathers. These are available in both paper and more recently, embossed vinyl, both of which I found extremely attractive.