More Beautiful with Age
In a garage that serves as his workshop, leather worker Patrice Didier — founder of The Robinson Company — celebrates the marks of time on objects designed to last for generations.
Text—Marie Charles Pelletier
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On a fine autumn morning in Brigham, Québec, Patrice Didier greets us in front of the workshop attached to his small house. From the wire cutters hanging around his neck on a leather lace we know we’re in the right place. With his sleeves rolled up and an espresso in hand, he invites us inside, where a fire is already crackling in the wood stove. Belts, wallets, log bags, and cases in a range of natural shades from beige to khaki are piled up on the shelves. Wooden-handled tools — leather knives, cutters, and punches — hang from the workbench. Hooks on the wall hold spools from Japan with thread waiting to be cut.
This is where the self-taught craftsman makes leather pieces that stand the test of time and gain character as they age.
“I like making — and knowing that I’m going to make the same thing again,” he explains. Didier finds a kind of meditation in leather work. He traces, glues, sits down on a stool, takes a sip of coffee, sews, and trims. This is one of the rare occupations that force you to slow down.
In the beginning he did everything by hand, even the sewing. But today, once the pattern has been traced, the leather cut, the contact cement applied, Didier opens the back door to let the sun stream in and sits down in front of his machine.
For textiles, sewing machines go very fast, but for leather, the machine’s servomotor slows things down to the necessary speed. “If I make a mistake,” he explains over the soothing hum of the engine, “I have to start the whole piece over.” Best to just buckle down and concentrate.
Finding his shed
Didier, who has a history (and a part-time present) in marketing, says he’s always trying to understand how things are made — objects, packaging, photos, or renderings. It was this impulse that compelled him, more than five years ago, to attempt to pierce the mystery of a $200 glasses case that had just come apart in his hands. After examining it for a good while, he decided to attempt his own prototype. A few YouTube videos later and he was on his way to Tandy — the store for leather workers, established in Canada in 1919 — to buy the necessary supplies. He didn’t know then that this new case, which remains intact today, would mark the beginning of something.
Working with his hands was a kind of getaway. But since he had a hard time imagining himself bringing a planer and a table saw into his three-bedroom apartment in Villeray, he decided to take the plunge and start a leather business. All that was missing was experience — something that can only be acquired with time.
“I started tinkering, trying to learn new techniques and buy better tools. And I kept on doing it, getting better over time, until the day I was happy with the object I’d just made.”
He found the time he needed by making choices — sometimes the wrong ones, he’s quick to admit — including quitting his full-time job and leaving the city in 2015. “I was dreaming of living in the country, on a small dirt road. Because people in the countryside often do a lot of jobs outside of their main occupation.”
The patina of time
Founded in 2016, The Robinson Company was born of the desire to create objects that are timeless, simple, and durable: objects that will last and eventually become heirlooms.
As he sews meticulously, Didier explains that Robinson is his mother’s surname, and that of his grandfather. Marius Robinson was not a cobbler or a craftsman: he was a man of his generation, who liked working with his hands and spending time in his shed. “I would whittle alongside him, while my grandfather taught me to treat his tools with care, not to hurt myself,” Didier remembers. Thirty years later, it’s his turn to spend time in his shed and to remind his five-year-old daughter to be careful with the tools.
Didier walks through his workshop, looking for something, and comes back with a leather school bag, handmade in Magog — a treasure he picked up at a garage sale a few years ago. “A woman had given it to her daughter, who had since finished her studies, so no one was using it anymore. There are two generations of doodling in here,” he says, revealing the inside like a sheet of papyrus.
This is the kind of object that inspires him: objects with a history, ones that gain in value over the years, whose patina gives them a living quality. His love of leather is on full display when he compares it to “a good oak barrel–aged whiskey.”
Didier works exclusively with vegetable-tanned leather, which sets him apart from practically everyone else in the industry. The natural tannins contained in bark, roots, or fruits act as acid agents during the oak-barrel maceration, which can last up to 60 days. This process makes the leather entirely biodegradable. The typical method of tanning — with chromium minerals — is faster, but involves significant amounts of contaminated waste water. The Robinson Company brought in samples from all over before finding a tannery in Pennsylvania that limits its contaminated waste water, and uses only livestock intended for meat, in order to avoid waste. The leather is stiffer at first, but softens as you carry it with you, and begins to show the marks of time.
It’s an art that Patrice Didier has mastered: finding beauty in imperfection, seeing new scratches as the evidence of adventures. He wants this philosophy to be felt in the objects he makes beside his wood stove, so the people who use them will be proud to watch these treasures grow old alongside them.
A leather stool for the BESIDE Cabins
The three-legged stool found in the BESIDE Cabins is one of The Robinson Company’s flagship objects, bringing together materials the craftsman loves: leather and wood. “These are materials that wear and that give character to the object over time, to better tell its story,” explains Didier, who sees its making as an opportunity to step outside his usual patterns. The oak legs and thick leather seat were designed and assembled in the hopes of accommodating several generations of backsides, at the fireside or the edge of the lake.
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