Friday, March 26, 2010

Leather and Lace: The antique-inspired accessories of Urban Heirlooms

I recently had the chance to interview Dana Osborne-Biggs, a talented designer who lives in New Jersey, United States. Dana is the owner of Urban Heirlooms, where she designs and handcrafts leather bags, cuffs, key jewellery and other accessories. Using genuine, luxurious leather (she purchases entire leather hides to make her bags, cuffs and wallets), authentic skeleton keys, vintage crochet lace and other components in her handmade creations, Dana embraces and replicates the beauty of time-worn objects and elements of the past. But most importantly, her designs reflect the beauty of utilitarian objects. A true vintage connoisseur and collector, her creations also have an elegantly natural quality.

I love how you describe your online boutique:
"If this were a storefront, it would be on a sunny, tree-lined street behind plate glass windows, with a wooden swing in front trailing sweet honeysuckle vines. Ella Fitzgerald would be singing from the Cole Porter Songbook, and I'd offer you a glass of sweet tea." 
When I wrote that passage I was daydreaming, as I do often, of southern summers where things move more slowly than they do here in the Northeast. You take time to stroll and amble so you have time to notice things like the heady scent of honeysuckle in full bloom, the peeling paint on window frames, dust motes in a beam of sunlight, and polished wood floors –just pretty things like that.
Would you say that your work is influenced by any particular time period or movement in history?
"I can’t say that I am influenced by any one particular time in history, but when I think of the vision I have for my shop and what I create, in the back of my mind you’ll find an old-fashioned manual cash register, packages wrapped in brown paper and twine, and clothing made from linen and cotton.
I’m imagining there’s a blacksmith down a dusty road and my skirts are long, sweeping tailored things, like Audra’s on that western, The Big Valley. I daydream a lot!"

Was there any special reason you chose to use leather as the primary medium in your designs? What do you love most about using leather?
Making leather my primary medium is something that really just evolved. In the beginning when I started making articles to sell, my intent was to work with vintage fabrics accented with just touches of vintage leather. I would buy vintage leather jackets and cut them up to use on purses, but after a while I began to feel that working that way created too much waste, and maybe that leather jacket was better left intact for some vintage clothing lover to enjoy for a few more years than for me to hack it up and fret over the scraps.


I came up with the idea of a simple leather wallet with an antique skeleton key as a closure; the first ones were made from vintage leather cut from jackets, but when the wallets became popular, it was difficult to locate vintage jackets with enough yardage that didn’t have seams and details running through them, so I started using new leather.
The wallets sold well and took on a life of their own and eventually became my signature item, so I learned how to purchase entire leather hides and fell in love with it. Good leather is heavenly to feel and smell, and it’s so beautiful, organic and versatile; you can use as much or as little detail as you want on your leather goods and if it’s excellent quality leather, it will most likely result in a gorgeous item.

What other materials besides leather do you like to work with?
I have shelves stacked with vintage crochet lace and intricate doilies, barkcloth, embroidered cottons and linens, and vintage damasks. Maybe I’m just a fabric hoarder, but I’m always swearing I’ll get back to them…as soon as I make this next leather bag…

The vintage skeleton keys you use impart an aura of mystery and hidden secrets to your work.
Do you find beauty and inspiration in the mysterious, darker elements of the past?
It’s more that I find beauty in utilitarian elements. I’m not one to go nosing around in a dark musty cobwebby basement by myself unless there are enough people at the top of the stairs to hear my screams and come rescue me! I guess you can call me "The Accidental Steampunk". I’ve heard many say that skeleton keys are dark and mysterious.
For me the mystery is wondering what doors and locks they opened—that’s why I prefer to use keys that have actual grooved bits instead of just blanks; I know they’ve most likely been used and that gets me—and my customers--to wondering. I know I have a piece of someone’s history. I love how practical tools were made with an eye for beauty and d├ęcor. What’s that saying? ““Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”. The keys I collect are all of that, from the simplest hand-forged keys to the most ornately carved ones.


Do you have any favourite books, movies, songs, other artists, destination spots, works of art, anything at all that inspires or informs your work?
I’m inspired by blues and vintage jazz music, Country Living magazine, my ever-growing collection of antique and vintage African-American photographs, antiques & collectibles, flea markets, and gazing at pictures of antique laces and sexy antique French keys.
Beautiful images that set my mind to wandering, the tools of my trade…these things light up my imagination, get my hands moving, and make me want to create something wonderful.
There’s a lovely song called “Bonfire” by Lamb. I love the following passage:

“…When walking just walk, when sitting just sit,

when being just be

Above all don’t stray from your chosen path

Burn like a good bonfire

In whatever you do

Burn like a good bonfire

And I know you’ll come through…”

Those lyrics inspire me to be who I am, my truest self. I’ve had moments where I’ve ventured away from my own aesthetic and tried to make what I thought would sell and better fit a certain venue. All I got for that was a box of abandoned supplies that look silly to me now, like, what in the world was I thinking? Now I respect my own niche, focus on what I find to be beautiful, what moves and excites me in design, and I believe those creations will find their perfect audience as a result.
What's the one tool or piece of equipment that you can’t do without?
Can’t live without my rotary cutter. It allows me to cut a fluid line or curve so you don’t see that stop-start messiness you sometimes get from using scissors, and it’s easier on the hands.

Is there anything you like to do to keep the creative juices flowing?
I like a pot of hot tea, plenty of light, and a talk radio show or a chatty DJ playing new music. That keeps me entertained in the wee hours when my husband and dog are asleep and I am too aware that I’m the only one awake.

What is the most important thing you would want people to know about your work?
That important thing would be that I value what I create and it comes from an honest place-- much more an artistic place than an economic one. I take great pride in crafting a well-made item and I aim to make that evident in every design and every detail. I want everything I make to be a conversation piece, something that will delight its owner for a very long time; hopefully long enough to be passed down for the next generation to enjoy.

(All photos © Urban Heirlooms)