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Reviewed by:
  • Faux Real: Genuine Leather and 200 Years of Inspired Fakes
  • Miles Orvell (bio)
Faux Real: Genuine Leather and 200 Years of Inspired Fakes. By Robert Kanigel. Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press, 2007. Pp vii+288. $27.95.

Here’s a test of your haptic personality: Which would you rather touch? Oak or formica? Silk or polyester? Brick or plastic? Vinyl or leather? Assuming you went for the real over the fake, what is it about “real things” that makes them more appealing? And what is it about our human quest for progress that compels us to keep inventing materials that, with varying degrees of success, imitate the qualities of real things? Robert Kanigel answers these and many other questions relating to the history and qualities of materials in a book that ranges between industrial history and popular culture studies. The focus is, as the title suggests, on leather, but Kanigel stretches the hide to cover an even broader study of consumer habits and cultural imperatives.

Kanigel’s research is based on the extensive secondary literature on the history of leather as well as on interviews with industry figures, and he takes us from the earliest processes of leather production (animal skins buried underground for years layered with tree bark) to the latest chemical processes of tanning and dressing, which shortened the time from hide to glove considerably. We are now so distanced from leather production that we forget how laborious and odorous (involving offal) the process has traditionally been. Kanigel restores this history to us, in a detailed discussion of the chemical and physical processes involved in making a material with extraordinary versatility, from notebook covers and car seats to belts and fetishistic harnesses

Kanigel is equally interested in the history of fake leather, which begins in the mid-nineteenth century with rubberized cloth and flourishes in the twentieth century with the ingenious amalgamations of chemical ingredients known as Fabrikoid, Naugahyde, and Ultrasuede (among others) that could be patterned to look like any of a hundred different kinds of “real” leather. The history of DuPont’s Corfam is treated in considerable depth, as a case study of one of the colossal failures (akin to the Edsel, Sony Betamax, or New Coke) in business history: Corfam was promoted especially in the shoe industry (for uppers) as amaterial that was better than leather because [End Page 260] it would always look new. As such, Corfam erased the very quality that gave the old shoe its character and personality. The ageless footwear had even more serious problems: for one, you could never break it in, so it had to fit perfectly from day one; for another, it didn’t breathe, an unfortunate drawback for a shoe.

Kanigel places the story of leather within the broader cultural context of our fascination with imitation products and our love of artifice, with reference to Joris-Karl Huysmans’s character, the Duc Des Esseintes (in the 1884 novel Against the Grain), who celebrates the extraordinary virtuosity of human creation, from stage scenery to fountains to artificial flowers and rivers. And he carries that impulse into our own addiction to virtual reality in a world defined by Jean Baudrillard as hyperreal, in which the simulacrum eradicates the original.

Yet to Kanigel, the difference remains between the real and the fake, an organoleptic difference rooted in our senses of touch and vision especially. Kanigel draws on the distinction developed by David Pye in his The Nature and Art of Workmanship (1968), which argues that the qualities of an object that are just on the threshold of perception (in leather, the random marks on the skin) are vital to our aesthetic pleasure in real things, as vital as the overtones of the violin. Such “accidents” are missing in manufactured goods. At the same time, Kanigel does not hesitate to raise the quintessential question: What is the line between the “natural” and the “man-made”? To put it more bluntly, in what sense is leather “genuine” or “real,” when the process of taking a biodegradable animal skin and transforming it into the perdurable leather is anything but natural?

Kanigel, who directs the Program in Science Writing at MIT...


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pp. 260-261
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