By Gene Fowler
“Necessity,” decreed the Greek philosopher Plato, “is the mother of invention.”
That Plato was a pretty smart guy. He made that observation some 2,400 years ago, and it still holds water today. Geoffrey Franklin, a native of the Portland, Oregon area, now based on the state’s coast, underscored that wisdom back in 2008 when he started riding his bicycle to his job as an architect. Finding himself in need of some leather handlebar wraps like he’d seen in a book about vintage Italian bikes, but unable to find anything like them on the market, Geoffrey created his own.
Then the economy went south and Geoff got laid off. His wife, Valerie Franklin, posted some of Geoff’s creations on Etsy and they were delighted by the immediate indications that there was indeed a market for handmade, leather bike accessories. The business grew and today they run it fulltime, working out of a home office and garage workspace.
The Franklins named their handmade business Walnut Studiolo. Walnut comes from the name of one of Geoff’s earlier businesses, an architectural firm, and Studiolo is an Italian architectural term for a small room devoted to reading or study. “I’m a self-admitted architecture nerd,” Geoff quips.
Handling the business end, Valerie put her anthropology degree to use helping her navigate both the family-of-man commonalities and the unique national/tribal characteristics of their customers, most of whom order online or by mail. “That’s especially important when you’re selling on the internet,” she says. “We have customers all over the world.”
Geoff explains that his architectural training functions as a design umbrella that can be applied to any creative process. After his first bar wraps and leather U-lock holsters turned out well, he began designing leather bicycle bags, beer carriers, panniers, mud flaps and lifters and carriers. “Our portage strap, or shoulder protector, and the bicycle frame handle—which I call the ‘little lifter’—make for easier carrying,” he explains. “Having the leather strap as the point of contact between the bike and the human body eases the weight on your shoulder, and the leather handle makes lifting your bike as easy as carrying a briefcase.”
Walnut Studiolo’s online catalog now features dozens of products, including leather blueprint tubes, whiskey or wine cases, headphone organizers, business card cases and 11 styles of drawer pulls. The cribbage board belt is a handcrafted item, made from American tanned bridle leather that not only holds up your trousers, but when you take it off it doubles as an on-the-go cribbage board. The belt’s design features a two-lane, 60-point cribbage track.
Though it’s a little more expensive, the Franklins’ products are made using only vegetable-tanned leather from American tanneries. “That’s one of our core values,” Geoff explains. “The hides we use are a by-product of the beef cattle industry. If there was no use for the hides, they would end up in a landfill. That’s why we don’t use alligator or ostrich—they’re raised for the hide and their meat is a by-product. And the vegetable tanning, of course, makes for leather that’s more functional.”
Though Walnut Studiolo products are all handsome items, functionality is another guiding principle. “I don’t like design with a lot of fringe for fringe’s sake,” Geoff explains. “If I can eliminate a detail that’s not essential, that’s one less thing the customer has to pay for.”
The architect also believes that a flaw in the hide can instill character in a leather creation. “It’s more personal and less precious that way,” he observes. Valerie adds that it’s a practice of the Japanese Wabi Sabi theory of design, an aesthetic that centers on transience and imperfection.
Geoff’s leather design aesthetic is also influenced by the antique leatherwork of Portland’s George Lawrence Company, in business from the 1850s to the 1980s. “They started out with ranch and cowboy accessories, then moved into hunting sports, and ended up making baseball gloves and other sports equipment,” Geoff says. “I’ve been collecting vintage George Lawrence pieces, and I study the design to see how they were constructed and how the designs changed.”
Leather education and care are part of Walnut Studiolo’s customer service. They’ve even written a book, The Idiot’s Guide: Leather Crafts, issued by DK Publishing’s popular “Idiot’s Guide” series. It’s a beginner’s book on leathercraft, featuring 20 projects that Geoff created with 34 accompanying techniques and step-by-step photos. One customer noted, “Their recommendation for the super sharp scissors has saved me endless heartache in trying to cut curves!”
Valerie researched the Library of Congress’ online archives on leather conservation to see how New England fisherman took care of their boots in the 1600s and 1700s. Connecting the dots from education to application, she explains, “My first job out of college was at the historic Garnet Ghost Town in Montana, where I worked to arrest the decay of a lot of severely dried-out leather horse tack and boots.”
Applying the Library of Congress information to proactive leather care, the Franklins mixed beeswax and other natural ingredients to create their own Leather Care Dressing that weatherproofs and conditions their leather products and also provides antifungal, antibacterial and anti-mildew properties. “It’s such an environmentally safe substance that you could even eat it,” Valerie says. “But we don’t recommend that!”