Garvan de Bruir is a man who likes to get primal. "Animal hides and wood are among man's oldest materials," the designer enthuses. "They are naturally renewable, as well as farmed." And this isn't caveman talk. Just take a look at his studio in County Kildare, Ireland.
His primary output is an exquisite collection of handmade De Bruir leather bags, but such is his love for leather and timber that he has built the furniture and even the workshop itself from these elemental materials. It's less a man cave and more a designer's sanctuary.
"In my buildings, as in my bags, I like to wrap large surfaces to create the forms I need," he explains. "I keep the joins to a minimum, and I trust the inherent qualities of a full surface of leather or wood."
Strength through shape
De Bruir's approach to his craft is simple and direct: strength through shape. His method is to first see the structural integrity of the leather before he visualises the bags, wallets, satchels or totes to be sculpted from it.
Indeed, this materials-first philosophy is reflected in his workspace, which boasts wooden walls that curve upwards to form an arched roof — resulting in a both strong and striking feat of design ingenuity.
And the approach is the same no matter the material.
Many an artist may see the 'angel trapped in the marble', as Michelangelo allegedly said of his sculpting when he had a fresh slab of stone in front of him. The angel just needed to be carved free.
De Bruir is the opposite. For him, the material comes first; the object follows.
"Over the 40-year lifespan of an object, the merits of its hand-stitched construction and premium materials ensure that any future damage is possible to repair, rather than replace," he explains.
"I guess these are simple old-fashioned values that are automatically also sustainable and environmental."
Though architecture was his first love, de Bruir began his career in furniture design, where he also built up a high proficiency in metals and leathers. After several years of cabinet-making in the United Kingdom, he relocated back to his hometown, Kildare, to set up his own workshop.
Kildare has a long history of supplying leather to the local horse-racing industry, so he naturally leaned towards it when creating bags for himself and his tool-holders. These 'leather equipment' bags soon attracted attention.
"My return to Kildare made me realise just how great leather is as a material," he says. "The workmanship here is tested daily on the training gallops or in the yard. My suppliers are generally servicing the equestrian industry, so it's always a very high technical grade of leather. All fixings are from the horse racing industry too, like brass or stainless steel buckles — anything lesser could fail in use."
Perfecting the craft
Heavy-duty materials call for heavy-duty tools. If you ever meet de Bruir, he'll likely be armed with a bradawl, a knife, thread snips or a pair of leather scissors.
"These basic tools are incredibly traditional and timeless," he says. His most-prized sewing machine is around 100-years old, even though he has at least 13 others. But he's no Luddite. Many components are now cut by laser rather than a 'clicker-press', so as to achieve a greater digital accuracy. It's all about perfecting the craft.
Take, for example, the creation of his leather Flight Bag. First, a great deal of time will be spent on prototyping its design. Then, after establishing the style and proportions, a very accurate patternmaking is required for the shapes to meet evenly along the proposed stitch lines. And during this entire process, the nature of the material about to be sculpted must be kept front-of-mind.
"The 3mm bridle leather I use comes from the shoulder of the cow," he says. "This will be somewhere between 10ft and 14ft square. Ideally, I can lay all components for the Flight Bag onto a single shoulder."
These leather components are hand-cut around wooden templates with a knife. Any exposed edges are planed clean, and the edges are bevelled and sanded, then sealed and polished with a compound.
"As much stitching as possible happens when the components are in the flat state so they are nice and accessible for the flat-bed sewing machine," he continues.
"Later, as they join to create the bag structure, a more versatile cylinder-arm sewing machine is required to reach the seams. Some stitch details become inaccessible though, so hand-stitching is required. The newly joined edges are then planed, sanded and sealed to an appropriate finish."
This kind of dedication takes both incredible skill and incredible patience, but the finished product becomes a thing of beauty, with qualities to ensure it lasts a lifetime.
De Bruir himself doesn't begrudge all the hard work that goes into making his bags. For him, if you respect leather then you must be willing to put in the hours: "High quality leather costs a premium," he explains, "so I consider that the craftsmanship has to be of a particular calibre to do it justice."
Consider de Bruir justified.