Interview: Sharad Mulchand, designer of Fleur de Leather iPhone cases
Market is flooded with leather iPhone cases, but not all of them come with multipurpose credentials. Taking a slightly different stance without losing form and key functionality of the object, a New Orleans-based architect-urban designer Sharad Mulchand has come up with a line of protective and functional leather cases with a country flair. The handmade Fleur de Leather iPhone cases not only house your handheld smart device but also offer a small storage space for credit cards, cash, etc. Multi-functionality is a term that rules our mind and forces us to browse through his complete custom -made collection. Meanwhile, we had a chance to converse with the designer, who answered our questions very genuinely and generously. Here is what he had to say.
DamnGeeky: Tell us something about yourself? Being an architect-urban designer, how did you get into the business of crafting leather iPhone cases?
Sharad: I learned leather craft when I was doing my graduate studies in urban design in New York City. I was working with the New York Department of City Planning and studying at CUNY. My coworker and my best friend Steve Jurow declared one evening that we were going to make briefcases; that’s where it all started. I did not need much instruction or practice, since all it consisted of was making evenly spaced holes for stitching the leather together and using a waxed leather stitching thread with two needles in what is called ‘saddle stitching.’ Of course being an architect made it very easy to design leather projects.
After that, I would make things out of leather that I wanted, things like a leather portfolio for my architectural projects, more briefcases and anything else that either I wanted to make or someone from my family or circle of friends wanted.
DamnGeeky: Do your creations serve as multi-functional iPhone cases?
Sharad:I primarily design my iPhone cases to help people carry their iPhones, as I felt that there was a real need for such accessories. As things progressed, I started adding card pockets so that one could carry along with their iPhones and a few necessary items such as a driver’s license and credit cards. Then people started asking me to help them carry other items that they need in their day- to-day work. For example an aerospace engineer wanted me to design a case that would carry his phone, a Leatherman multi tool and a small flashlight he uses when assembling planes in the Los Angeles area. A computer engineer wanted me to create a case that would carry his iPhone with a Mophie extended battery case and a tool that was almost the size of a permanent marker; then, in the middle of the design process he wanted to add something to carry his headphones. Of course it took me a while to come up with a design, and, after 3 prototypes, I was able to make his case. At that time I thought that no one else would want such a case but I listed it on my website anyway and to my surprise many people have bought these cases.
DamnGeeky: How do you incorporate design and usability in your creations?
Sharad: I think for me it’s the usability or function that is the most important, so once I determine what needs to be carried in the case and how to arrange all the functions, usually the design falls into place. I do not start out with a design in my mind and then create my cases. The leathers I use also play a big part in the final design, as each leather demands a different form and techniques depending upon its flexibility, finish, and thickness.
DamnGeeky: Is the leather used anything special? How do you justify the price?
Sharad: My pieces are generally “custom” designs, in that we do not buy any of the hides in big quantities, and the hides are selected for their particular qualities and the wear and tear aspects based on the intended uses. The one thing that distinguishes the leathers I use in most of my cases is that they are quite thick, such that I sometimes have trouble incorporating magnets that are to be covered by the leather for closing the cases. Most of the leather cases on the market are made from very thin leather on the outside, with a stiffer non leather membrane sandwiched with a fabric backing inside. But I am intent in maintaining purity in my leatherwork, such that the only material I use – other than thread – is leather. Therefore, if my cases have any lining inside, it is usually a lining leather that is typically as thick as the outer leathers on other cases (see attached Photo). Since I began making cases as a leather crafts person rather than a leather production person, my approach to design emphasizes the custom care and material selection necessary to produce high quality in leather, rather than mass production using mixed materials. Lastly, and most important, beginning with my first experience making a briefcase back in 1973, I am self-taught in leather craft and therefore my skills and design sentiments are continually evolving around ways to use leather creatively.
Of course, there is no mass production of my designs; while many of the cases appear similar, each case is unique. While other cases snap directly on to an iPhone, my cases are designed to accommodate iPhones with the different protective cases that people buy – essentially, outerwear for iPhones and other devices. The cases I make just for an iPhone only represent a very small percentage of my cases. In general, I design about eight different sizes of cases for the iPhones and then most of my customers request changes, which typically requires that I design a whole new pattern. For this reason I cannot have leather cutting dies made for my designs, since they are so variable in size, particular functions, and operation. Absent a mass production from dies, each case is hand cut and made individually.
Lastly, the issue of justifying the price has never come up with any of my customers. Many of my sales are to repeat customers. As demand has increased to where it is beginning to exceed my ability to produce cases as a sole practitioner, I have finally enlisted the assistance of a third generation leather worker who has a workshop in the US; I am also able to say that his workers are paid properly and the enterprise is organized such that customers are buying legitimate hand-made goods of high quality for a proper price.
DamnGeeky: You said handmade. Stitching, cutting and full attention to details of thick leather is quite impressive. How do you manage to get this perfection in each case? And how much time it takes you to make a single case?
Sharad: I never think of my cases in these terms, I just happen to make them this way and to be fair I know many other leather workers who are much better at stitching leather cases, though perhaps not in designing. I can only make about two cases per day and it might take even 2-3 days when I am working on a new design to get everything right. Also each leather demands an approach specific to its characteristics. Finally, customer preferences affect final choices. For example if a customer asks me to remove the card pocket, this is easier said than done. Merely adding the slimmest protective case on an iPhone changes the whole pattern required to hold the device and its cover, as you can see in the accompanying comparison of my Very Slim Bison cases, one on the left for an iPhone 5 only, and the bigger pattern on the right for the same phone carried in a slim case. So if someone says, ‘I don’t want the card pocket’ in his or her case, I have to account for the reduced thickness of 5 cards that were included in those original patterns.
Even with Tim and his crew making some of my cases, they can only make 5 cases per 8 hour work day between two people, so at two cases a day, I am not doing so bad speed wise on my own!
DamnGeeky: Do you ship outside of the United States? Where can customers buy your iPhone cases
Sharad: I ship outside the US. I have customers in other countries but I think about 90% of my customers are in the US. The two larger groups are the Canadians and the British, then French, German and some in Scandinavian countries. I have had a few customers from Japan, Indonesia, Nigeria, Greece and even Kazakhstan. I feel honored to have them as my customers. By the way the GQ Magazine in UK had one of my iPad cases as readers’ choice in their July 2013 issue, so perhaps that is what may be driving my small UK customer base.
DamnGeeky: Apple is out with its new product line; do you have any plans to launch new cases for iPad Air?
Sharad: Yes, I am working on cases for the new iPad Air. I want these cases to be different from my previous cases, and distinctive.
DamnGeeky: Leather cases usually come in a very tight fit, which makes removing the iPhone difficult to answer a call. Do you agree, and how do you fix the glitch in your designs?
Sharad: I have many iPhone “dummy” models as well as about 40-50 of the various protective cases and all three of the Mophie extended battery cases. I use these to develop and test my designs before I sell them. Even then, some of the cases end up shrinking in transit, and then some customers want them really loose and some prefer a tight fit. I always replace their cases as per the feedback I receive. I call mine a ‘no fault design process.’
Actually the leather cases do not have to be very tight size-wise, because the slight friction between the interior case leather and the iPhone surface (or the protective case) will provide sufficient security that the phone will not slip out of the case, but will still be easy to remove when needed. I make the cases to function in concert with these different circumstances. So if you have a case with a hard smooth plastic surface, then I make the cases a bit narrower as compared to the wider cases if a customer has a silicon or rubberized case, both of which give greater friction. Also if my cases have a slicker lining inside vs. the natural suede-like back surface of leather also plays a part in sizing the case. And lastly, I design my cases so that they grab a little more tightly at the bottom. This makes it easier to pull the phone out after the initial tug while at the same time it keeps the phone securely contained when it is fully inserted.
DamnGeeky: Bumper cases are better option because they don’t add bulk to your device and deliver higher level of safety. Do you agree?
Sharad: In my opinion the best cases should cover the back and be raised a bit from the phone surface on the front besides covering the sides. If you have a screen protector, that would be the best possible enclosure. If you simply have a bumper case and your phone drops then it is more likely to get damaged. For many people added bulk does not seem to be a problem as can be seen from their choosing bulkier cases such as OtterBox Defender, Commuter, and LifeProof designs.
DamnGeeky: Your cases seem to obstruct access to everything including headphone jack, camera, etc.
Sharad: I have some cases that give access for the headphone jack, generally my cases are not designed to function like other cases, and they are intended to allow users to carry their iPhones including any of the protective cases. This is the reason they either have a belt clip, belt loop/s or a shoulder strap or a wristlet.
DamnGeeky: They take much more space and are bulkier than other sleek cases available in the market, don’t they?
Sharad: I do not compare my cases to other sleek cases in the market, which is not the market segment I am addressing. For me it is more of a question to be able to accommodate iPhones that already have the sleeker or bulkier cases on them.
DamnGeeky: How are your handmade cases different from Vaja cases?
Sharad: I would say that such cases are designed to snap on or attach to the iPhone itself, which does not vary in dimension or form unless a newer model comes out. Thus, once these cases have been designed, they do not change and then can be mass produced. It is difficult to apply the mass production model to my cases since they vary according to the phone plus protective cover cases they are designed for; also my cases would be difficult to manufacture in other countries given the logistics of individual production as opposed to making them on an assembly line and shipping them to the US. For now I am quite happy designing and making my cases right here in USA by folks who live and work here and who can earn decent wages doing so. I am not pressuring Tim and his crew to deliver the cases at lower and lower cost and thus depress the wages for his crew. All I expect is that they produce handmade, artisan-quality cases.