Design Vocabulary: Shagreen

These are some of my favorite types of posts to write. Partly because I love interesting trivia and history and partly because I love sharing the “What is that?” of the many parts of interior design. Today’s Design Vocabulary word is a great example of the interesting details I love. It is a very old leather that is back in style again.

Leather, as you know, comes from the outer layer of an animal’s skin (the “epidermis” for you science fans). Cow leather, which is arguably what we Americans think of first when we think of “leather”, is traditionally stretched and tanned before use. Shagreen (pronounced: shah-GREEN) is an untanned leather. “Shagreen” used to primarily refer to horse leather, but horse leather has become much less popular in the last century. Nowadays, shagreen almost exclusively refers to shark skin, which looks like this when it is applied as a leather:

Image courtesy of phisick.com

The above picture is an antique toiletries kit wrapped with shagreen. Shagreen was a true luxury item in past centuries. Imagine how hard it would be to catch, haul in, skin and delicately preserve a shark when out at sea in a ship during the 1700s. Herman Melville eat your heart out. Being able to own and display just a little bit of shagreen in your daily life (“What? This old thing?”), was a real sign of refined taste.

I also chose the above picture to make another point about the term’s origins. Follow me on this little tangent. Those of you who took French in high school might notice a similarity to between “shagreen” and “chagrin”, the latter of which means “embarrassment or anxiety” in French (and now also English). When you consider how “rough”, “coarse”, and “unfinished” can be used to negatively describe something like manners, as in “Your coarse manners reflect your country upbringing.” you can see how the word “chagrin” is clearly a derivative of this unrefined leather. Sneaky, huh?

Fashion forward and backward: a 2012 shagreen handbag Image courtesy of olystudio.com

Shagreen was also used throughout history as a covering for things that could get slippery. Today, we would design something that needs a good grip to have some sort of rubberized wrap around it, like a tennis racket. When your hands get sweaty playing tennis, you don’t ever have to worry about dropping the racket because it has a firm, dry grip.

So, what if you lived in an era that didn’t have rubber or silicone as an option, but you really needed to hold something very firmly, like a toiletries kit, or something more dangerous:

19th century (Edo period) Wakizashi, National Tokyo Museum Image courtesy of Wikipedia

This sword, called a Wakizashi, was used exclusively by the Samurai, the elite class of nobility warriors that served the ruling dynasties of Japan for centuries. And if you look closely, you’ll notice that the handle of this sword is covered in shagreen. (Because who wants to drop their sword in the middle of a battle?)

Shark skin, by its very nature, performs well in moisture. The early sword masters of Japan were using smart technology when they chose this textured material as a standard in their designs. And now, thanks to the renewed interest in shagreen as a modern design element, you can use it to hold onto things you don’t want to drop either:

Cell phone cases Image courtesy of Bergdorff Goodman

Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone go out and buy real shagreen again. (No angry letters from PETA, please.) Sharks are now an endangered species and we all need to act responsibly as custodians of our planet. However, I want you to understand the history of this design element so you can make respectable choices if you like the pattern and texture as it has evolved in today’s design market place.

And evolved it has! Check out these beautiful new bath tiles from designer Ann Sacks:

Image courtesy of Ann Sacks

Can you see how she mimicked the original organic texture in these tiles? I think they are beautiful. How gorgeous they must look when they get wet in a shower. No animal was hurt in the mass production of these tiles, yet we all get to admire the design genius of Mother Nature.

You can also find shagreen applied to more traditional uses again, such as these sets of decorative boxes…

Love these? These sets of boxes are now on sale! Image courtesy of West Elm

…and this large-scale application of shagreen on the surface of a coffee table.

Image courtesy of DwellStudio

Have you noticed any shagreen in the stores lately?  Do you like an animal-based print or texture in home decor?  Where could you see using a little shagreen in your home? Leave a comment!

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Posted on May 3, 2012, in Design Vocabulary. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Great post. I love this design element. I didn’t know it was a thing. Thanks!

  2. I am not a fan of animal prints normally, but this is really beautiful. It’s organic, but more subtle. I could use one of those cute boxes to mix in on my shelves. Great idea.

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