Leather has long been a staple of the furniture industry, but in recent years concerns about the role the material plays in contributing to climate change have fueled a boon in production of hide-free alternatives. But many of those options have their own environmental issues, since they are largely made of plastics and other chemicals that don’t break down should they end up in a landfill.
That dilemma inspired the Peoria, Illinois-based material maker Natural Fiber Welding (NFW) to develop a new plastic-free, plant-based leather alternative called Mirium. In May, the company debuted the material at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) in New York City on the Terra chair from Common Object’s OkaTerra line.
NFW — which produces a number of sustainable materials such as bioneutral foam, synthetic-free footwear outsoles and performance textiles made with recycled fibers — was founded with the mission to produce sustainable alternatives to many commonly used materials.
“The vision was to reduce our over-dependence on plastics and synthetic materials by only using natural inputs and shaping and molding them into a lot of different things that you find across fashion, footwear, automotive, upholstery and so on,” said Oihana Elizalde, vice president of natural fiber welding and general manager of the Mirium business at NFW. “The vision was really around working with nature, with materials nature created, to replace synthetics and reduce the impact on the planet and people.”
Natural-hide leather often comes with a host of environmental impacts, from deforestation to gas emissions, as well as potential chemical leaching during the tanning process. Faux leathers made of plastics such as polyurethane or vinyl generally don’t offer the same look and feel — not to mention durability — of natural hides, can come with PFAS or other harmful chemicals and are difficult to recycle or break down at the end of their lifecycle.
“Synthetics really took a very big part of the industry, and that created a lot of issues at the end of life of these products,” Elizalde said. “Plastic pollution in the oceans and in landfills, as well as all the impacts plastics have on human health and in terms of carbon emissions, have made it important to find an alternative.”
To create the right level of durability and sustainability, Mirium starts with rubber, mixing it with plant-based oils and waxes such as soybean oil, as well as plant-based fibers and fillers such as cork, rice hulls or clay. The mixture is manipulated into a consistency similar to modeling clay, then rolled into a thin sheet. That sheet is then finished and cured.
“At that point we decide, what type of aesthetic is the customer looking for? Is it a leather-like grain? Are we looking for something that has a very different aesthetic? Are we looking for a softer material or a more rigid material?” Elizalde said.
NFW uses natural fibers such as cotton or Tencel, as well as molds, to create finishes that range from a leather-like grain to a smoother, more technical look.
“We can mimic everything from very faint, very shallow grains to deeper grains,” Elizalde said. “We can also tweak the hand feel and the gloss level — we can give customers very different looks. It’s a very versatile platform in terms of aesthetics.”
NFW developed Mirium to be applied on furnishings, but Elizalde said the company has taken great care in which brands it works with to stay true to its circular vision. She points out the fact that upholstery is merely one component of a piece of furniture, so it’s important for NFW to work with makers that are dedicated to using natural, sustainable materials in the other components as well.
“Brands that have this more holistic approach to design, that work with our materials in ways that really make sense in terms of disassembly or finding other materials that are similar on approach, that’s for sure one of the key things that we care about in terms of finding the right partners,” she said.
Along with the OkaTerra chair, Common Object will incorporate Mirium on its Sattel stool, and contemporary furnishings company SixInch also has plans to use the material. And designer Drew Veloric partnered with NFW to upholster a sustainable restoration of a classic Eames lounge chair in Mirium.
Currently, NFW only produces Mirium in panels, which limits the size of furniture applications it can handle. But Elizalde said the company has plans to offer the material in rolls, making it easier to use for larger items such as sofas. And while scaling up to make Mirium more widely available is the next goal for NFW, the company is determined to maintain its focus on circularity.
“It has been very important to us from the beginning to be very clean and uncompromising in that mission,” she said. “The moment you compromise and include an unnatural additive, that’s when we’re no longer circular or clean. We didn’t want to create materials with those issues, and with materials borrowed from nature, at the end of life, they can in most cases return to nature as nutrients.”