“100% Real Italian Leather” couches for $900 and club chairs for $250…all seems to good to be true and it is. Furniture companies in North America are taking advantage of consumers and skewing the public’s understanding as to what “real” leather is.
What few people in North America realize is that in North America Bi-cast leather is allowed to be sold as 100% Real Leather. People every day are buying furniture that they think is real leather that is actually bi-cast. In most European countries, Australia and New Zealand bi-cast has to be marketed and sold as “coated” leather.
So what is Bi-cast (By-cast) leather. Bi-cast leather is made from ground up split leather. Split leather is the fibrous part of the hide that is separated from the upper part of the hide during the tanning process. The split leather is ground up and blended with epoxies or glues and is then turned into a rolled good. Next a layer
of plastic or vinyl is laminated to the rolled split.
Originally Bi-cast was developed for use in the shoe industry. It was never really designed for use in furniture. Bi-cast was originally created by Bayer and the chemicals used in the original material produce a higher quality material. The issue with bi-cast today is that it is made in China using generic chemicals. The Chinese product off gases a wide range of VOCs depending on the chemicals used in the mix. These chemicals can be harmless but can also cause headaches and dizziness in some people. Often people are unaware of this as the showroom pieces will have had a chance to breath. A lot of Bi-cast furniture is not only boxed but comes inside plastic bags. Being shipped in the bags doesn’t let the bi-cast breath so when you open the box you are hit will the full force of the off gassing VOCs.
Aside from the environmental issues that bi-cast furniture can cause for people in their homes, the other issue with bi-cast is that as a layer of plastic or vinyl is laminated to the “leather” the leather can’t breath and as a result it will dry out and will result in the bi-cast cracking. Even if properly cared for the life expectancy of Bi-cast is a fraction of that of real leather.
The reality with Bi-cast is that you never actually sit on any leather. You also don’t get any of the natural characteristics of real leather that make it the best upholstery materials available. In a lot of cases only the seat, seat back and arms of a chair will be made in bi-cast as they are able to create a vinyl match for all of the other panels. This isn’t to say that there aren’t suitable applications where bi-cast furniture can be used effectively, but if the expectations are for the furniture to act and perform like real leather you will be disappointed. It is important as a designer to understand and be able to recognize bi-cast and educate your clients on this material.