What did these men put in the bag?: Tradition, craft and good design: Jonathan Glancey meets a designer and a firm of leather-makers putting elegance back into luggage

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Gestural elegance is a phrase to conjure with. Ross Lovegrove, one of the best contemporary product designers, uses it three times while describing the superb, innovative range of luggage his company, Studio X, has designed for Connolly, the famous leather-makers.

Anyone who has waited at an airport carousel should know what he means. The garish luggage looks as if it were designed to make its owners feel ridiculous and to expunge what little glamour remains in air travel.

Most modern luggage is astonishingly inelegant. The only bags and cases you can open with Lovegrove's 'gestural elegance' are the best from Louis Vuitton or those trawled from antiques markets and crusty shops where canvas- and-leather luggage has barely changed since Uncle Bertie went away to war in 1914. The Connolly range, which will go on sale from a mews shop near Harrods in November (at prices still to be decided), revives the spirit of elegant travel. Lovegrove is well known for his exquisite use of new materials: he is one of those rare designers who can make plastic sensual. Working with Connolly, he has used leather as if seeing, touching and smelling it for the first time.

The Connolly brothers and their brother-in-law, Anthony Hussey, the director of the company who is heading the luggage project, are delighted by what Lovegrove has done for them. The family has been tanning and treating cow hides for well over a century, and their leather has been used in Jaguars and Ferraris, Rolls-Royces and Armstrong-Siddeleys.

The motor industry wants more hides tanned than ever, but also demands leather that is greaseproof, waterproof and sunproof. So Connolly has been forced to make its car leathers increasingly unnatural in texture, to the extent that in some lesser brands of cars, it can, sadly, be mistaken for plastic.

Lovegrove's bags, cases and accessories are covered uniformly in supple 'vegetable-tanned Italian veal, grade 1'. This is about as natural as leather comes without being too easily marked or damaged, and it shows off Connolly's art to subtle advantage.

Weekend bags and a sports bag make the most opulent use of this exquisite material; but perhaps the finest piece is Lovegrove's briefcase, a thing of curves and great subtlety.

Although it features a powerful lock, it is far more likely to be stolen than broken into. The case is still under wraps (Connolly would not let us photograph it yet) and will almost certainly cost a four- figure sum. In this design, a single piece of leather is wrapped and glued round a varnished plywood frame. The case opens to reveal a miniature bureau, finished in a creamy leather and burrwood veneer, with a place for everything from sunglasses and pens to keys and documents.

Every component, including the strap-like handle, cast-aluminium catches and lock, has been custom- made - not a staple or any other constructional short-cut is to be found. The case is like a traditional musical instrument and it will not be cheap to make or buy.

'I wanted to design a range of luggage influenced by, and as well made as, the very best cars,' Lovegrove says. 'I'm not potty about cars, but I admire the engineering and design detail of the very best of them. This project, like a car, has taken some years to mature: Connolly is after the best. We've been able to source the finest craft talent available for each detail of the range. There has been no compromise whatsoever.

'One important thing I've learnt as a designer is that, while it is relatively easy to create products that are too forward-looking for most tastes, it is much harder to come up with something exciting and new that fits comfortably into the parameters of existing taste and ever so gently broadens them. The briefcase should appeal to the traditionally minded as well as those with more adventurous tastes.

'One of the most interesting parts of the process has been working with specialists in specific materials. They have forced us to rethink our ideas on occasions, and at other times we have enjoyed a successful cross-fertilisation of skills.

'The leather worker, for example, encouraged a change in the design of the plywood carcass of the briefcase. In fact, we experimented with 30 different shapes for the carcass before we got the result we wanted. It had to be exactly right because if the plywood were to expand or contract the leather would wrinkle and destroy the purity of the product.'

Curiously, this is the first time Connolly has ventured into product design: like Rolls-Royce, the company has never made haste in an unseemly fashion, but retains its extraordinarily old-fashioned and gentlemanly air. This image is not a marketing man's veneer but the real thing.

(Photograph omitted)

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