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ARTISANS : Making His (Gold) Stamp on Leather

September 18, 1993|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Bill Mulkey creates leather inlays--the kind with gold-embossed borders--a service so unique that people from all over the country seek him out.

Working out of a cluttered warehouse in Costa Mesa, Mulkey plies his centuries-old trade on all kinds of furniture. He restores old desks or end tables whose leather has become worn and tattered with time; he adds inlays to newly built pieces.

He has done work for numerous celebrities, including Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne and Arnold Schwarzenegger. He recently finished leather inlays for a walnut executive desk for Tom Cruise.

"It's a lost art," says Mulkey, who has been making custom leather inlays for 21 years under the business name Antique Leathers. "Not too many people do it anymore."

While restoring the leather on antique desks is a mainstay of the business, he's added leather inlays to backgammon games, card tables, desk accessories, photo albums, wall panels, ceilings and even elevator doors. Against Mulkey's advice, a lawyer once hired him to cover a floor in leather.

"It turned out beautiful, but the ladies' heels ruin it," he says.

Mulkey has restored the leather on an antique railroad desk that now resides at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and he's reproduced the leather tops on large conference tables in the California Capitol (for that job he embossed the leather with gold eagles and the American flag).

He has flown to Idaho to restore the top of a built-in desk in a $7-million cabin, and he has covered the wall tiles of a Pasadena hotel. He once wrapped an entire desk in snake skin.

Mulkey was introduced to the trade by an Englishman. The two went into business together, Mulkey stripping and preparing the furniture for the leather inlays and his English partner embossing the leather in gold.

When the Englishman was deported for not having a visa, Mulkey took over the business.

He bought a set of embossing tools--wheels with different tooling patterns engraved on the edge and a hand-held instrument that looks like an oversize pizza cutter, all from Scotland. Then he taught himself how to do the gold embossing, relying on his memory of his partner's technique.

Leather and gold don't come cheap, and Mulkey quickly discovered one slip of the hand could be costly.

"In the beginning I stood there and thought about it for an hour before I would start," he says.

He begins by placing a strip of Mylar covered in 23-karat gold (the highest grade of gold the tape can hold) on top of the leather.

He chooses a wheel with the desired pattern, fits it on his hand tool and heats the instrument on a hot pad--the only modern contraption in the process.

When the tool is hot enough, he runs the edge of the wheel along the gold tape.

When the Mylar is peeled away, a leafy pattern in gold is melted on the smooth leather. He uses stamps to make the corners and center medallions.

Patterns can be simple or elaborate, Mulkey says. Some people want only a simple gold border; others want the leather covered in an intricate pattern of scrolls, swirls and medallions.

Rolls of leather are stacked like logs on shelves throughout the warehouse. He buys the leather by the hide--about 50 square feet for $300.

The leather comes dyed in one of 12 colors, with burgundy, hunter green, brown, blue and black among the more popular. For the occasional customer who wants something in, say, pink, Mulkey can have leather custom-dyed.

Mulkey says he works 65 hours a week to keep up with demand, restoring about one desk a day.

"It's amazing how many pieces (of furniture) with leather are out there," he says.

He can restore tables and desks with a damaged wood finish by shaving off the top layer of wood and replacing it with leather.

"Many people have no idea that old furniture can be salvaged and restored," he says.

He charges $52 for a square foot of embossed leather. He also makes leather desk accessories to sell to antique shops and customers.

"This is like an art project to me," Mulkey says. "I take a little pride in it."

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