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Leather Craft

Byway Studio – leather goods design from California

eather goods design_leather alice band by Whitney Bai

Ad|Industrial Designer Whitney Bai and I connected with each other on Instagram through Craft the Leather Competition 3 years ago. Finally, I had the pleasure to meet her in person in Berlin and talk with her about her leather goods design.

leather goods_Whitney Bai

Whitney, you first studied Business Management, English, Human Resources and Industrial Relations, and then changed to Industrial Design. Why?

I’ve always been a pretty artsy and crafty kid growing up – but for some reason, majoring in art and design felt really unrealistic when I was graduating high school. Looking back I actually majored in something that was a match of my good grades, not my interests.

I continued to study HR Management when I came to the states in 2009 until I finished my Master degree. I was a good student, but I can’t say I was really passionate about it. I did try my best to make it work – working in HR and trying to start a Phd degree in a related field. At that time I thought I just need to work hard, and passion is for hobbies.

I started to look into art schools. Only then I started to grasp the concept of a “portfolio”, which of course I had none. But just by browsing through all those school websites and art portfolios has made me super excited, and soon after I was determined to go back to art school and start a new life dedicated to my passion.

That led to my wonderful three years at RISD ID where I enjoyed every minute of it. I remember thinking: wow I can’t believe I get to draw and paint for homework; wow I can’t believe I get to play with wood all day; wow I can’t believe I get to be one of those people who can create models with computer; wow I can’t believe I get to travel to Europe and Asia for class!

Creating your own design studio in California, leather is one of your main creative media. When and how did your love for leather start?

Providence/Boston area has an awesome design cultural, so I was blessed with a lot of learning opportunities, including the automotive inspiration trip to Germany led by Kathleen, the footwear design course at SLEM in Netherland (now the Footwearist in Italy), shoe making course with Marika (Stiefelwerk NYC), and Craft the Leather International Design Competition where I got to know you, and many other talents designers.

I have worked with leather for 7 years now, and BywayStudio just turned 2. I have been an Industrial Designer by day, leather craft person by night (some days quite literally so). I love both aspects of my creative career and crossover of the two enhance each other.

leather goods_studio Whitney Bai

For example, some of my leather projects incorporated processes/details that were used in furniture design; and Byway Studio’s design theme is “Thoughtful Minimal” which is my aesthetic towards ID work as well.
Leather working is such an amazing community that till this day I’m continuing to learn from some of the best leather artisans and craftsmen in the world.

What kind of leather is your favorite to work with?

Over the years I have definitely developed my material preferences for different projects because leather has such a broad range of structural and appearance characteristics.

But if I have to pick one favorite, that has to be the unmilled, natural (as in no dye and surface finishing) vegetable tanned leather.

leather goods_handmade headphones by Whitney Bai

This is my favorite because it really is the most versatile leather I’ve ever worked with. It can be buttery soft, paper thin, or strong and structural. I can paint, mold, cut, fold and even design slotting mechanism and joinery with it.

Sometimes the material properties led me to a design direction I’ve not thought of during sketching, which is very exploratory and freeing. I’ve made several collections with this type of leather because of it.

leather goods_wooden headphones covered with leather by Whitney Bai

I got my veg tan leather with the “Pelle Conciata al Vegetale in Toscana” trademark via Rocky Mountain Leather Supply to ensure they not only are traceable and sourced only from the byproduct of the meat industry, have top quality developed by skilled artisans, but also have minimal environmental footprint.

I promise I’m not sponsored by them haha, but I get asked a lot in terms of how I picked my leather so I thought I’d share.

Which was the most extraordinary leather goods design project you realized in Byway Studio?

I tend not to get attached to my projects and always focusing on what is inspiring me. It helps me to be a lifetime learner and keep an open mind for daily inspirations.

leather goods_leather bags Whitney Bai

One collection that has a special place in my heart is the Framed collection. It’s the first collection that I can clearly see my voice in the world of leather accessory design.

It is unapologetically simple in form, has a unique “framed” detail throughout different pieces, and includes different design variations that work with their intended use cases. I use bags in this collection very often and I can be very critical towards my own work, but I’m happy to say they are very versatile, very thoughtful and minimal; they age beautifully; they are the Byway bags.

leather goods_round leather bag by Whitney Bai

With this collection, I understood the feeling of creating something that’s personal and also speak to many people. I fully embraced the creative freedom and ownership, and continued to grow as a designer with her unique perspective and point of view.

leather goods_handmade triangle bags by Whitney Bai

If everything would be possible, which would be your dream leather goods design project to work on and with whom?

Ah good question… A dream leather goods design project for me is all about the people who I get to work with.

There are many talented leather craftsmen and designers who I’m dying to work with. I visited Japan last year and was able to meet three of my heros: Go Sensei, Niwa Sensei and Okada Sensei.

We’ve been friends on Instagram for years: I was planning to study with Go Sensei in Tokyo for three months. Unfortunately it didn’t happen as planned because of a job change but I will make it happen someday.

I just did a three-day workshop with Niwa San in Oakland through FineLeatherWorking and invited him to my studio one afternoon to chat all things leather.

Okada Sensei is not only a brilliant craftsman, but also a tool making master. He has been my go-to person for high quality leather working tools that fits my hand (yes he customizes the knife and hammer handles for my small hand).

So as you can imagine, it was a dream come true to finally meet them in person in their amazing studios last year in Japan. It would be my absolute honor to work on a project with them. I started to learn Japanese because of it.

Another person I would love to work with is Larry! I actually ready about him in blogs, followed his interviews, and love his work long before I accidentally recognized him in person at one of my internships, after sitting next to him for weeks. He gave me one of his handmade card holders and it’s still one of my most loved possessions.

He is the kind of person who can do anything he puts his mind to, and he is always, always ready to learn new things. I learned from him that leather work and design perspective can be bettered by many other things we do in life.

I also wanted to collaborate with someone who has different creative strengths. For example, I’ve always wanted to do something with one of my best friends from RISD Felicia Chiao.

I live for her illustrations and I’m her No.1 fan. Allyson is my favorite modern weavers and I bought all her online classes. I did some leather weaving projects and I would love to do some more with her!

I also love Heather Day’s painting and would love to work with her to do some mixed media work.

And you and I have talked about doing the bag workshop in France at Boisbuchet, which I’m very much looking forward to!

I also met a fellow industrial designer Jeremiah at work, and got to know his lifestyle brand Normal Objects. His aesthetics and taste is very much aligned with mine, so we thought it would be cool to do something together.

More information about Byway Studio and Whitney’s leather goods design you can find on Instagram and the website.

© Pictures by Whitney Bai

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