By Connie Dufner
Photos courtesy of American Leather
American Leather celebrates 30 years of stellar form and function.
Bruce Birnbach likes to think of American Leather as the Apple of the furniture industry. The CEO of the Dallas company says that just as the tech giant’s game-changing product is not merely a phone, American Leather chairs are light-years beyond ordinary seating.
Take the Comfort Air, for example. Sure, the leather is supple and luxurious to the touch. It features clean-lined good looks and a stylish, Space Age sort of vibe to the way it cradles the body. Take a seat, though, and choose your adventure. “I call it the world’s only living chair,” says Birnbach. “It doesn’t have a static position, moves with you and stops where your natural weight and body stop, so that you settle into however you personally want to sit. It’s a very cool collaboration between two inventors out of Alexandria, Virginia, and a design engineer out of Minnesota.”
Such is the business story of American Leather, creator of iconic seating and holder of multiple patents. “It’s all about creating beautiful things for the home with added functional benefits,” Birnbach says.
Other innovations include the Comfort Recliner, which features proprietary insides that allow the back and footrest to function independently. In the sleeper sofa category, Birnbach notes, “Ours is a platform bed that comes out of a sofa — very unusual.” Yes, no uncomfortable bar beneath the sleeper’s back.
It should not be surprising that the company has made a bells-and-whistles name for itself in the realm of home design. It was started in 1990 by Bob Duncan, now chairman of the board, and current board member Sanjay Chandra, who lives in Southlake (as does CEO Birnbach). At the time, Duncan, an industrial engineer by training, was intrigued by the Japanese auto manufacturing business and pondering possibilities of creating a similar system for making furniture. American Leather now has 600 employees working in a 350,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Dallas, with a business model that is decidedly efficient, touting decision to delivery in 30 days or less.
We caught up with Birnbach as he reflected on the company’s evolution as it hits the big 3-0 in business.
817 Home You’re all about the leather. And now, fabrics, too?
Bruce Birnbach We are still leaders in leather. Our hides come from the top 10 percent of selection in the world.They are tanned and finished in Europe, where the finest handbags are all tanned. We are moving into a softer aesthetic. Fifty percent of our business is now fabric.
817 You had us at the dreamy leather sofas and chairs. And yet you keep innovating …
BB We’re not just another furniture company. For me, as the leader of the company, we don’t want a generic product that people can replicate. So, we create a moat around our business. We find things we can do the best in the world to create that competitive difference. And that is 10 0 percent our proprietary products.We’re focused on more innovation, the chairs, recliners, sofa beds, the delivery.
817 Your pieces break some barriers: Soft and comfortable, yet affordable. Innovative, yet accessible to mainstream tastes and budgets — they fit in any home setting. How and why do you shoot for that quality in a retail setting when you could go exclusive to the trade if you wanted to?
BB We were birthed as a retail business. We want to be true to ourselves. We do some business with the trade, but everything we make we ship in less than 20 days. That’s our core competency.
817 But no dedicated retail store?
BB We have a nice brand, but we’ve learned over the years that customers place their trust in the retailer. They know Stacy Furniture and Cantoni more than American Leather.You can find our furniture at Living Modern, Crate & Barrel, Design Within Reach, Room & Board, Havertys. It’s our furniture, but their brand names, and we do the manufacturing under their brands. We do have an Innovation Center in Dallas that is an exclusive American Leather trade showroom in partnership with Cantoni. We bring in retail salespeople to expose them to how we make furniture.
817 Switching gears from office to home — what is your favorite American Leather piece at home?
BB I have two Comfort Air chairs. I love to show them off. People sit in them and say, ‘Whoa, this is amazing.’ Also, right now, I’m into a slightly thinner line and tufting. The air chairs in leather look beautiful, and I’ve brought a new tufted piece, Tristan, into the house in a textile to create a juxtaposition and a little more warmth.