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An interview with designer maker Wolfram Lohr

Wolfram Lohr is German and has been hand making leather accessories in Brighton since 2003. It has grown into a family business making high-end leather goods. Wolfram loves seeking quality vegetable tanned leathers to create a range which is exciting and vintage looking. The colour matching is playful; Wolfram and his wife Sarah pride themselves on looking for leather that will stand the test of time and age beautifully.

Design-Nation asked Wolfram a few questions about his practice, inspiration and future.

Design-Nation asked: Can you tell us about your practice and how your business began?

Wolfram Lohr: My practice started in 1999. I came to England to learn shoe making from a friend that studied at The Worshipful Company of Cordwainers in London. After that I was hooked. I rented a space to work and put products in a shop in Brighton Kemptown. I began to make bespoke shoes and spats for customers; the shoes were quite specialist so I started to make bags, belts and wallets. I really wanted to offer more choice to men. As it turned out most of my products are unisex and have a classic and fresh look. In 2006 I partnered with my wife Sarah Gardner who added a female edge to the Wolfram Lohr look.

DN: Who has been your most influential teacher or mentor?

WL: Ghita Schuy was a mentor for me, she kickstarted my shoemaking career. I was her apprentice for one and half years; during this time I assisted with making shoes and helped with the running of her shoe shop in Kemptown. The first pair of shoes I made with Ghita were a challenge as I chose a difficult design to make. Ghita asked if I was sure if I wanted to make a masterpiece on my first project… being excited on every level to make and to learn I of course said YES! Ghita was very patient and helped me through every stage, it took about 6 weeks to complete.

DN: What inspires you and your work?

WL: I love vintage bags that have a purpose or a particular job. I have collected old post bags from Germany and USA, rail bags from England and more. There is a wealth of inspiration in the stuff we used to use. My customers also inspire the way products are made and used. Often the practicality and the function control the way Sarah and I design our products. Does it work? Is it a clean and beautiful shape? Has it the right proportion and what type of leather should I use? There are many factors that contribute to making a successful product.

DN: Can you tell us a bit about your design process?

WL: Through tests we establish an idea of what we want to make, then I will try the shape out in the first sampling stage. Sarah and I make design decisions based on the first sample, deciding and finalising the shape hardware and what leather to use. It can take up to three or four samples till we are both happy with a product. The variations in the leather can change everything in the design if the stand is smooth, stiff, thick, floppy, textured, soft. These elements can make the bag stiff but smooth and/or textured and floppy. The colour combining comes along with that. We like to use playful combinations in our work. Mostly our bags are well-structured shapes with clean lines and classic styles. We have ventured into softer shaping but still use our characteristically thick leather. Designs are unfussy, emphasising the beauty of the hide. The vegetable tanned leather that we use will age well over time. We love the fact that our bags grow with character, gaining a patina that will be well loved.

DN: What is your workspace like?

WL: The workshop is a hive of collected vintage games, scooters. lampshades, old signs and of course leather, so it smells fantastic. I’m quite used to the smell now, but anybody that comes in will mention the earthy smell of our vegetable tanned leather. We have three large benches; two are used mainly for production for bench work, rolling out hides and preparing products before sewing. The other bench is for packing and pictures. All are used as workspaces for the workshops we run. It’s a colourful and productive place to be.

DN: Do you work hard on your PR or do you work with others on marketing?

WL: We are constantly changing the way we work and take turns in doing the social media aspect of our business. We are mostly led by our interests, what we are producing at the time and what events we are doing. We will generally put most information in our email newsletters and focus on retail or trade customers, then we will follow up with tweets, Instagram and Facebook posts. There are many ways to communicate these days. I have worked with PR companies and this has been helpful to organise the way we market our goods. It is always good to share ideas, see other viewpoints and generally to make it fun. I really enjoyed taking part in the March ‘Meet the Maker’ on Instagram, this was a really good daily exercise.

DN: What are the main challenges in your practice?

WL: Keeping the website up to date. We often have products with leather colours that have discontinued or we don’t have the leather in stock. As we offer a made to measure service for some customers they have to pick from the range that we have. Our leather store is a sweet shop of choice for future projects. Some of the leathers would not be suitable for wholesale production so sometimes colours are an issue. Customers and clients are understanding, mostly this does not seem to bother them as we will always offer other options if needed. It is sometimes disheartening knowing how much work we have to do to keep everything up to date, but this is the same for every small business. I feel we are getting better with foresight how to manage it. Keeping focused on the target in hand is challenging when you have other jobs on the go; looking after the stock and keeping our range in check is a big job. It’s nice to see what we have and what we have achieved. It’s also hard to say goodbye to some products.

DN: Where would you like your practice to be in 10 years?

WL: We would like to grow our online presence as a brand. At the moment we are in the process of developing a new website which should be live by the summer. We are aiming to be nationally known as a brand that produces high quality handmade goods that are made to last, and also for bespoke commissions. We would like to grow our workshops and courses to expand on teaching leather craft, to share the experience and give people a taster of what it’s like to make. At Wolfram Lohr products are made to last and we take sustainable product design seriously. We would love to have a shop again with the possibility of workshops / repair workshops.

DN: If you could collaborate with someone who would you like that to be?

WL: Henry Cuir is a bag and shoe designer, everything he makes is handmade and he uses predominantly hand sewing. I would like to collaborate with him to design and make a project together. The simplicity of his work is appealing and mixed with the earthiness of his production, this inspires me to want to find out more about him.

DN: If you weren’t a designer what would you be?

WL: Wolfram – a long haired surfer dude or postman. Sarah – a gardener or artist.

DN: Why did you join Design Nation? What do you enjoy and find helpful from being a member?

WL: We joined Design-Nation to be supported in the wholesale market. We knew that they exhibited collectively at large trade shows in the UK and Europe. This was a great opportunity for support in sampling new fairs and markets we were not sure of. Being part of this community helps cut the costs and it is always great to exhibit with a group – we all look after each other. This helps a great deal.

DN: Have you got any exhibitions, commission or events coming up you are taking part in?

WL: We are currently finishing off trade orders that we have made from the beginning of the year. We are also preparing for the EUNIQUE trade and retail event in my home town of Karlsruhe, Germany in June (exhibiting with the Design-Nation group) and the Contemporary Craft Festival in Devon. I will do the German show and Sarah will do the Contemporary Craft Festival.

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