Although exotic leather has been around for thousands of years, its production causes substantial harm to animals, humans and the environment. The leather industry produces a high carbon footprint and its chemical waste often pollutes freshwater systems. In light of these factors, Nuhayr Zein, an Egyptian architect based in the UAE, was inspired to create a plant-based leather alternative called Leukeather. It is currently the only vegetal leather on the market that is both 100% plant-based and naturally patterned.
The project was created for the 2021 Tanween program in collaboration with Tashkeel, a contemporary art and design studio and gallery space in Dubai. The annual program works with emerging designers to create a product inspired by the nature and culture of the UAE. Zein was one of four designers chosen from 58 applicants for this select program.
The production process for Leukeather considers the well-being and safety of humans, animals and the planet. Leukeather uses River Tamarind (Leucaena leucocephala) seed pods as the material base. Local farmers gather discarded pods, which are later split to remove the seeds. The seeds are donated for pharmaceutical use, while the split pods undergo a special treatment process. The pods are soaked in oils and sun-dried, in order to modify the plant fibers. After multiple repetitions of soaking and drying, the pods become soft and leathery. Once prepared, they are cut and assembled into modular strips and sheets for use.
The treatment process chemically alters the innate fiber structure of the pods. This results in a material that is flexible, strong and waterproof. However, each pod’s extrinsic natural qualities, including texture, color and pattern, remain preserved. In fact, unlike other vegan and plant-based leather alternatives, Leukeather does not use overlaid plastic surfaces to mimic the texture of animal skin.
As a testament to Leukeather’s incredible durability and aesthetic properties, Zein designed a set of bags and an ottoman for her first collection called the SEEDS Series. The handbag designs explore orientations of Leukeather strips and color variations. The ottoman features machine-carved dimples on a dark oak base that complement the seed-studded Leukeather upholstery. These textures contrast with the stool’s smooth metallic accents. Through this series, Zein’s designs celebrate the unique qualities of each seed pod, ranging from color to texture.
Overall, Leukeather prevents exotic animal breeding and the dangers of hazardous chemical waste through its use of plant-based materials and environmentally-friendly production. Its social impact also cannot be overlooked, through its collaboration with local Emirati farming communities. It stands out as a vegan, cruelty-free alternative whose aesthetic qualities match those of traditional leather.
Images via Leukeather