It is a privilege in this age to know personally the human whose hands molded, cut, forged and fired the items that we hold dear to us. Mass-made objects hold no meaning but their function. The more hands it takes to assemble them, the less consequential these hands are to the end user. As I’ve become more aware of the detriments of most of humankind’s capitalist, consumerist habits, I’ve found more joy in seeking out objects that serve as a material connection between myself and the maker. When an artisan puts intentful thought and care into their craft, each piece is a part of their story and a gift unto the receiver. I received such a gift from such an artisan during my time abroad in Florence.
The archetypical Italian artisan is someone who is a lover of their craft. During my time abroad in Florence, a city famous for leather craftsmanship, I very much looked forward to the chance to meet some leather artisans and perhaps purchase something tailor-made for myself. What I found instead were shops upon shops and entire markets of the same leather jackets, belts, bags and keychains in the same shades and textures that despite having “Made In Italy” embossed on them, were questionable in their origin. Call it a desire to own something truly unique in its making, or a yearning for a way of consumption that is more intimate and less industrial, but I didn’t want to settle for buying a piece that I had seen on every street corner.
My study abroad center was located in the Santo Spirito quarter of Florence, an area known for its artisans and boutiques. One day during a small class excursion, I walked past a tiny glass storefront sandwiched between Florentine apartment buildings, through which I saw a woman bent over a narrow work table, standing underneath an open storage space with rolls of multicolored leather. It looked as if she were cutting something. After class, I immediately went to the workshop and was greeted by Stephanie, owner of Frau Leman, cutting a buttery sheet of leather with an exacto knife. Thankfully, she spoke English (she’s actually German and from Berlin) and we chatted for a bit. I was so excited—not only did I stumble upon a leather artisan, but a young female one who had decided to move from Germany to Italy to pursue her craft who I could actually communicate with!!! It took me a lot of effort to not say “I want to be your friend” right from the get-go.
Stephanie’s shop is cozy—it has standing room for maybe six adults. Her products were on display on either side of the shop—sturdy bucket bags, tiny plant holders that look like tiny bucket bags, several kinds of wallets (she later told me that wallets are quite difficult to design and make), and a beautiful black backpack. I didn’t need any of these, and I didn’t want to buy something that I wouldn’t use, but thankfully Stephanie also does custom work. Over email, we decided on a simple design for a leather laptop case, and I was able to pick out the leather, fabric lining, and clasp in person.
I visited Stephanie’s shop often after meeting her, and I learned that she sources all of her materials, from vegetable-dyed leathers to brass buttons, with the utmost care. She’s also a bit of a perfectionist, and often when I passed by her shop, I would see her bent over her work table scrutinizing a piece. Later in the year, over cappuccinos, she told me about how years ago, she had decided to go to trade school in Berlin for leather working after realizing that her college degrees in French and North American studies wouldn’t lead to satisfying careers. After finishing trade school and learning that the EU would subsidize an internship in leather working anywhere in Europe, she decided to come to Florence. However, at the well-established leather workshop in Florence she was working at, Stephanie encountered some friction as a newcomer to a business that had been around for 30 years. Eventually she decided to leave and invest in her own business – something she had been thinking about even in Berlin. When I met Stephanie in September, Frau Leman had been around for a little over half a year.
About a week after putting in my request for the laptop case, Stephanie completed it. The result was a sumptuous, polished case made of a creamy honey-tan cow leather, complete with Stephanie’s insignia and an embossing of my initials. The stitching was done in a complementary brown color, and the case is a perfect fit for my Macbook Pro. Stephanie is a true artisan and one that I’m proud to call a friend. I’ll be using this case for the next twenty or thirty years of my life (or until it breaks down), after which I’ll certainly be asking Stephanie for a new one.
You can find Stephanie at frauleman.com and on Instagram @frauleman. Perhaps one day when you visit Florence, you can stop by her workshop and tell her I sent you.