If you’re planning an office design project, or even just a furniture refresh, you might be wondering about the many and varied upholstery options you can get. It can be hard to get past the technical terms and choose what you want, but we might just be able to help you manage it.
What are some typical upholstery materials in office furniture?
With so many companies adopting resi-mercial design, the answer is: just about anything. But here are some of the most common ones:
- Natural Leather
- Standard Polyurethane Vinyl
- Ultraleather® or Higher-Grade Vinyl
- Basic Woven Fabrics
Of the above, the most common would be standard grade vinyl or faux leather and basic woven fabrics. Less common would be silicone, Ultraleather, and natural leather.
A Note on Commercial Fabric Grading
Grading is a way of categorizing fabric based on the cost to manufacture. If a fabric costs more to manufacture, it will be given a higher grade, which will result in a higher price for you, the consumer.
Keep in mind that higher grade fabrics are not necessarily more durable than lower grade ones. For example, velvet upholstery is always a higher grade because the weave of velvet increases production costs. On the other hand, you can usually find both low and higher grades of vinyl.
In the case of vinyl, higher grades are usually better quality (the better quality is the reason they cost more to produce). Grading systems will vary between manufacturers, so don’t count on it as a reliable measurement of any specification such as price or durability across multiple manufacturers.
Just know that textiles referred to as ‘higher grade’ are more expensive.
This is made from natural animal hide, a soft and durable upholstery material. You often see this on a conference or executive style chair, but it is possible to get it for lounge or collaboration type seating. Although you often see it in neutral shades, you can get a whole spectrum of colour options from most manufacturers. It must be cleaned more gently than faux leather, as it is a natural material. Leather will soften and develop a soft sheen (known as a ‘patina’) as it gets older, as well as being stain repellent and easy to wipe down with water-based cleaners. Since leather is a natural material, it is quite a high grade, so is not the most cost-effective option.
Beware of ‘bonded leather’. This is not natural leather cut from a hide and will not offer the same benefits as true leather. If you are not getting genuine, 100% leather you might as well get vinyl, as it will cost and perform similarly to bonded leather. When you see office chairs that have started to peel, leaving a grainy, faded surface underneath, they are most likely bonded leather.
Vinyl and faux leather are essentially the same thing in this case, and the kind we are talking about is made from polyurethane, which is kind of like a cross between rubber and plastic in terms of appearance and texture. The polyurethane, or poly, is used to coat a woven back like polyester or rayon, creating a pliable, smooth finish in a wide range of colours. It is very common and can be found at almost any office furniture distributor. It can withstand a slightly more aggressive cleaning than natural leather but is also stain repellent and may not need much cleaning at all. It can come in varying qualities (with corresponding price points) from quite basic, to high quality and extremely durable.
Ultraleather® (or similar)
Ultraleather is actually a brand name of poly vinyl, but it is an example of how a higher quality vinyl can perform. It looks and feels similar to leather and will last longer than basic vinyl and even real leather. It comes with a higher price tag than a lower grade vinyl but is less expensive than leather.
*After much consideration, this was added as a separate list item to demonstrate the difference between a basic vinyl and a more expensive, exceptionally durable vinyl.
If Ultraleather is the most durable, silicone comes in at a close second. It is long-lasting and easy-care. The finish is quite smooth to the touch, like a softer version of vinyl. You can also get ‘pebbled’ versions that feel similar to leather. It tends to have more colour options than vinyl, including patterns, but is quite an expensive choice of material.
Basic Woven Fabrics
This covers one of the most basic, classic types of upholstery – woven fabrics. The most common fibers are polyester, nylon, and rayon. These tend to be quite durable and probably have the highest number of appearance options due to the wide range of colours combined with all the different weave options. If you prefer the smooth, shiny look of leather or vinyl, this textile is probably not for you, but otherwise these are usually a great option. The only catch is that price can vary hugely from being as inexpensive as a basic vinyl, all the way up to the same price range as silicone.
Felt is a dense, matted material, originally made from wool because wool ‘felts’ naturally with heat, moisture and pressure. Today, manufacturers can create felt made from synthetic fibers, although it is often scratchier to the touch than wool felt. Designers often choose felt as an upholstery material due to its sound-absorbing properties. However, it is considered less durable than other fabrics because it is susceptible to pilling. It comes in a wide range of colours and is generally quite cost-effective.
Your choice of textile depends on what you are looking for in terms of performance, durability, and price.
Most Expensive: Silicone or Natural Leather (depending on grade of leather)
Most Durable: Ultraleather® or similar
Most Luxe: Natural Leather
Least Expensive: Woven Fabrics
Largest Variety of Patterns: Woven Fabrics
Gets Better with Age: Natural Leather
Best Performance for Your Money: Basic Vinyl
Best Sound Absorber: Felt
- If you want durability and versatility for a great price (a.k.a. the most bang for your buck), choose a basic poly vinyl.
- If you want a luxurious, natural and breathable material that gets better with age, try leather.
- If you want a soft leather-like finish with lots of colour options (including some patterns) and easy care, and don’t mind paying a premium price, give silicone upholstery a try.
- If you want the largest array of colour options, including patterns or multi-coloured fabric on your furniture (and for a decent price), choose woven fabric. Bonus: the texture of the weave can also affect the overall look of the upholstery.
- If you want an almost-like-the-real-thing faux leather that beats out all the others for durability, choose a high-grade vinyl.
- If you want sound-absorbency for an affordable price, choose felt.
Now that you understand the basics of upholstery fabric, you can get a few samples and get started – or at least have an informed conversation with an interior designer on the subject.