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Tea With Claudia: Kyle Bunting

Tea With Claudia: Kyle Bunting

Tea With Claudia: Kyle Bunting | SFLUXE 1
kyle bunting, claudia juestel

Kyle Bunting and Claudia Juestel at Seasons Bar & Lounge at the Four Seasons
(Photo: Moanalani Jeffrey)

Very few in design are not familiar with Kyle Bunting the brand which makes some of the most extraordinary cowhide rugs; but the company’s namesake founder is quite illusive. So I was considerably surprised by Kyle Bunting’s candor when we set down with at the Four Seasons for tea.

We shared the Artisan cheese plate and walnut bread, scones with lemon curd (with advance notice) and a selection of petit fours, accompanied by “T” Floral Jasmin green tea in a French press. And there I learned about how passion, confidence and persistence can lead to tremendous success, both professionally and personally, especially when doused with love. No doubt, Kyle Bunting is a man of passion, and he credits the love and support of his wife Libby for much of his accomplishments. He confidently talked about how he was humbled by their first meeting and how he got his now thriving business started in a shotgun shack warehouse in San Francisco’s Hunter’s Point. Success is one of those curious and complex things, and I am always in awe of people who can take a great idea and persevere to actually turn it into a fortune.

Kyle Bunting color hides (Photo: courtesy of Kyle Bunting)

Kyle Bunting’s company has grown tremendously during the last couple of years, a time when many in our industry were quite satisfied with simply remaining at status quo. Always looking towards the future the line now includes rugs, upholstery material, furniture and wall coverings. It is represented throughout the United States and in countries as far as Germany, Great Britain, China, the United Emirates, New Zealand and Japan. With a faithful following of interior design and architectural firms like Kerry Joyce, Cheryl Rowley, Jan Showers, David Rockwell, McAlpine Booth, Amanda Nisbet, Jiun Ho, Jay Jeffers and Gensler, as well as orders coming in from individuals all over the world, the sky is the limit for Kyle Bunting.

“Jet Stream” designed by Neri & Hu (Photo: courtesy of Kyle Bunting)
“Alhambra” designed by Kris Lajeskie (Photo: courtesy of Kyle Bunting)

“Jet Stream” wall covering in Victor Churchill butcher shop in Sydney Austria
designed by Dreamtime (Photo: Paul Gosney)

Claudia Juestel: Your home is near Austin, Texas, but I understand you previously lived in San Francisco back in the ’90s. Please tell us more about that.

Kyle Bunting: I moved into San Francisco in 1994 and lived here for ten years. I had a career in the television production business. Sky TV was a business my brother and I and another partner owned. I was a Texan by birth, and I relocated to the Bay Area because Sky TV was an in-flight television production company. So we owned the management contracts for all the airlines to produce and exhibit all that advertising and content you see when you fly. United was our major carrier, and so most of our clients were in the tech industry. It made sense for us to move to San Francisco. This is such a great place. It is my adopted second home, if you will.

Sky TV (Image: courtesy of Sky TV)
Custom rug for Michael Hampton’s bedroom at the 2010 DC Design House
(Photo: courtesy of Michael Hampton)

Then in 1998 Ziff Davis acquired Sky TV. After the sale I spent about a year transitioning the company to Ziff’s control and management, and at that time bought my first place. I had a good friend by the name of John Opella I had gone to school with in Austin, and who was a designer living in New York. I called him to come out and help me with my place. We went to the San Francisco Design Center together, and he walked me around and showed me all the stuff that he wanted me to approve. And all of a sudden this world opened up to me. Wow, there’s this crazy place that is like a private couture shopping center for designers and their clients, for home furnishings. Isn’t this really great?

And through the process of doing my first place and working with John I got intrigued by design. Since then John actually has done a series of patterns for us. But back then I kind of caught the design bug by doing this with him. When I stopped working with Ziff I was buying, renovating, and turning over real estate, between 1999 and 2000. I became very interested in the real estate business, which lead to this business.

“Mr. Crowley” art piece in Elizabeth Tigar’s living room (Photo: courtesy of Kyle Bunting)

CJ: So how did you get your cowhide business started? Where did the idea come from?

KB: The inspiration actually came from my father. My dad was a creative entrepreneur who every once in a while would chase some weird thing he thought was an interesting creative idea. So while he ran a manufacturing company that made outdoor sporting goods, like backpacks, tents and things like that, he also created a plastic cover for telephone books. Remember telephone books? That was just one of many random things that my dad did.

My parents were both from central North Carolina, and on my mom’s side of the family, my grandfather and uncles were high-end wood workers. They did custom furniture and millwork. These were the guys that you brought in for the insanely complicated, very expensive work. So my dad had this crazy idea. He told them, “Hey, build me some table frames and I’ll glue them together and stain them. And then, because I keep getting these milk rings all over our furniture from the boys, and I’m tired of hearing their mother complain about it, and I’m tired of it ruining our good furniture, I will cover them in something more durable”. He took a piece of plywood and went to a leather place and asked for the most warp-resistant and durable leather they had. They turned him on to some cowhide leather, and he bought it. He started cutting it up into little pieces, glued it onto the plywood, and dropped it into the interior of a frame, and the table was done. I was about ten years old and I remember that all of our friends and neighbors thought that it was a really cool idea and looked pretty neat.

My dad also used to drag me around, and we would take the tables and go to rodeos and shows in Texas where they were selling oil equipment and things like that. Bankers, ranchers, and oil guys would say, “Wow, that’s a Western-looking cowhide table top, I’ll take two!” So my dad would get my uncles to make the frames, and he would make the tops. So, fast-forward 25 years when I caught the design bug. I had some old pieces and things my dad had done for me, and I had just met my future wife Libby. And without going too far down that really corny lane, she is my muse for me, my real inspiration. Libby just brings it out of me.

Kyle & Libby Bunting at Gump’s (Photo: Drew Altizer)
“Bittersweet” bar front by Neri & Hu (Photo: courtesy of Kyle Bunting)
“Mirage” rug in a living room designed by Eric Roseff Designs
(Photo: courtesy of Eric Roseff Designs)

CJ: What is your wife’s background?

KB: She is one of six kids, from a large Irish Catholic family from Eugene, Oregon. She is an Oregon Duck who came down to the Bay Area.

CJ: So you met here in San Francisco?

KB: Yes. I came from Texas; she came from Oregon. She worked for Credit Swiss and J.P. Morgan in investment banking. It was love at first sight! This is one of those great cheesy stories of all time, it’s worse than “Top Gun”. Because when I was a single man I was very comfortable introducing myself to someone; but I was not a man of lines. I would not have any problem going up to someone saying, “it’s nice to meet you, what’s your name?” or saying something normal. But I was so overwhelmed when I saw, not met, when I saw Mrs. Bunting. I knew that was it! Libby is about eight years my junior, and I was I guess about 32ish. So I was ripe, I was ready! And I remember being not of lines, I approached her and I said, “So that’s what you look like”.

CJ: That’s the only line you ever needed I suppose.

KB: It ends up being the only line I guess I ever needed.

CJ: Was it the same for her?

KB: I guess it was; invariably she came round to it. It wasn’t the same for her instantaneously, but her part of the story is, “Whatever, who is the guy with the cheesy line?” It was her girlfriends who noticed that they had never seen anybody look at anyone that way. It was just a magical thing. I am kooky, nutty, lovey-gubby for Libby. She is just a really amazing individual who has been incredibly supportive. She had her moments, of “This will never send our kids to school, your furry carpets”, but she was always believed that if I loved it enough it was going to work out. She is incredibly genuine in her creative support. It has really been extraordinarily useful thing to me to find somebody who inspires me and at the same time gives it to me. Libby doesn’t deliberate; she just gets it.

When I say she is a muse, it’s because I move pretty quickly, and her being there and being supportive is great. Her capacity is 90% a mother, which means 70% taking care of me, and 20% taking care of the children, and then the balance of 10% she can carve out she helps the company.

“Caravan” designed by Jiun Ho (Photo: courtesy of Kyle Bunting)

So, what happened in August of 2001, was that I resigned from the television business, was doing this real estate thing and met my future wife. So I was having this history from my father and my mom kind of cooking around upstairs, and I literally woke up in the middle of the night with this idea.

CJ: Which was what exactly?

KB: Which was to do what my dad had done with the tabletops, but to do them as carpets, to do them in a way that would be contemporary and transitional, that would involve color, that would be really exciting and invigorating, and on an enlarged scale. Nobody had ever seen that before. Immediately Libby was right on it. We jumped on a plane the next day and flew cross-country to meet with my father. And I told him, “Dad you’ve got tell me how you do this stuff. Oh, and by the way, this is Libby I’m marrying.”

So she met my parents, and we figured the thing out. And then for about the next eighteen months I buried myself in a hole in the wall, just me backed up against the Bay experimenting. I bought leather from S. H. Frank and cut it up. I was playing with things and techniques, making prototypes and goofing around. Once we felt like we had something that was tangible in a marketable way I approached Eric (Erik Hughes) and Geoff (Geoffrey de Sousa) of De Sousa Hughes and I said, “Eric, I don’t know you from Adam, but I bought from your pal, so you have to take a meeting with me”. De Sousa Hughes, which has been our local showroom representing us since then, has always been incredibly receptive, open and very supportive of emerging artisans. They have great vision and are tremendous supporters of bringing in new things.

CJ: That’s what makes them so unique as a showroom.

KB: They are unlike any other. We are now represented in fifteen or sixteen showrooms in North America. Most of that is with corporate showrooms like Holly Hunt or David Sutherland, who are outstanding partners, make no mistake about it, but De Sousa Hughes is a unique showroom, and it really follows their mantra; and I don’t think anybody else does it so well.

“Jet Stream” rug and wall covering at De Sousa Hughes (Photo: Matthew Millman)
“Kashmir” designed by Kyle Bunting (Photo: courtesy of Kyle Bunting)

CJ: So they got you started?

KB: So Erik and Geoff were the first people in the showroom business who really understood what we were doing, and they were very supportive.

CJ: So you went the wholesale route? You didn’t say, “Okay, let me open up a store, hang up some rugs and see what happens”.

KB: Well, that is not entirely true. I don’t want to say that I was the first, because it wouldn’t probably be true. I can’t prove it, but I do think it was significant that in 2002 or 2003 I had some very rough prototype and said, “Could you put this on the floor and see if you can run some orders for it?” and that we also put up a website and started buying Google Ad Words. People all over the world were finding us. As a design-focused artisan brand trying to reach the trade and the public we followed the idea that if they are going to search for leather rugs and if we cast a wide enough net, maybe by the time they stumble into us, they’ll go, “That’s cool, I’ve never seen a thing like that.” It really worked, and we were writing one out of twenty orders from the showroom, but we were getting business from people all over the world.

CJ: And, who were those people? Was it individuals, designers?

KB: It was about 50/50. There were design-focused individuals who were savvy enough to use the web and who just kind of stumbled on us, or they were designers who were in the markets where we did not have representation. Then, of course my friends in the trade business helped. The Internet ended up being the best possible strategy. We very early on adopted the idea that we wanted to post almost everything we could, so people could see it online. We developed our site to show our work, which opened it up to everyone. At the same time it enabled us to support the showrooms and let them garner a customer base.

CJ: When you say we, who was that in those days? Did you have staff?

KB: The company was me and a few people that I would go find to help me make things. Our first studio was in Hunter’s Point. We rented a 1000 sq. ft. building at the end of Underwood Street, right by the Bay. In this dilapidated space, we developed the first prototypes. I’ll never forget the landlord’s reaction to the first rugs we made. He said, “Those look awesome and all, but make sure you don’t forget to market them, because no matter how cool they are no-one will buy them if you don’t let the world know about it.” He was very supportive. I think we took those words to heart; we have promoted our work heavily ever since.

In that space we could only receive one radio signal, a metal station from San Jose. We found inspiration in some of the songs and more than a few of our design names are inspired by that music. “Mr. Crowley” is a rug design, and also an Ozzy Osbourne song for instance.

CJ: You have certainly come a long way.

KB: We have come a long way. The next shop was in the stacked car basement of my house in Seacliff. Things were done very simply then. It was funny because we used to literally take razor blades and hold them in place on the lines and then hit them with mallets to cut the pieces. And then we got sophisticated and found a man with a cutting machine.

CJ: I assume since you created something new there was no machinery for this.

KB: There were leather-cutting machines for shoes; but I didn’t have those, and I didn’t have all the razor-bladed dies to do all of this. But I figured it out and got into having that type of machinery.

I actually found a man who had a place in the Mission where they put clothes together, otherwise known as a sweatshop. They made motorcycle jackets; so they knew how to work with leather, and they had one of these machines. I would show up once a month with all these bales of leather stacked on my shoulder, and we would put a big plastic bubble around the machine because the cowhide fur would go everywhere. I would sit in there with hair all over me looking like a snowman, cutting, cutting, and cutting. I would shake off in there and then wrap this whole plastic bag around me, and I would shuffle out of the place so I didn’t get hair all over their leather. Cutting white cowhide, the fur it generates in a room full of black leather, going on black motorcycle jackets, it’s worse than rolling around on a dirty floor if you’re wearing a cashmere sweater. It picks up everything.

“Mirage” designed by Jiun Ho (Photo: courtesy of Kyle Bunting)
“Reflect” designed by Ryan Brewer (Photo: courtesy of Kyle Bunting)
“Fez” designed by Kris Lajeskie (Photo: courtesy of Kyle Bunting)

CJ: So you didn’t use color in those days?

KB: We didn’t do color in those days. We used hides with a real natural palette. We created patterns. We used all these earth tones, and it was beautiful. It was actually a few years later when Cheryl Rowley, a designer in Beverly Hills, emailed one night. I’m proud to say, that even to this day, and this is not trying to brag, that with hundreds of requests a month I still deal with about half of them. I love talking to customers and hearing what people are thinking about and what we can we do. So I always respond to these calls.

And one night, Cheryl is in Los Angeles, and I am in Austin, and it’s about nine o clock my time, and I get this email saying “I stumbled across your website, pretty cool stuff!. Can you do this?” I looked at it, and I saw who it was. “Wow, that’s Cheryl Rowley, that’s a big deal, she is really talented!” I called her, and she answered the phone, and I told her “I just love what you do”. I’m kinda goofy that way, and then I asked “What are you thinking?” She said that she wanted a runner in Astroturf green, about three feet wide, and fifteen feet long. Of course because I knew Cheryl I said, “Sure, absolutely!” So then I had to find green cowhide, and I did. I knew how to get it, but when I digested it a little bit, I did start to wonder what is was trying to do. We billed it and sent it, and I warmed up a little, thinking that it was kind of cool. About three months later she emailed me these photos. The rug was for her personal home, and it was absolutely outstanding and spectacular and appropriate in every way. This was a long time ago.

CJ: And you were sold?


KB: I was sold. Actually it wasn’t so much being sold, as I was being humbled at exactly the right time. Cheryl was so viable; she opened my world. I have to admit that she was singularly responsible for teaching me two things: helping us to be wide open as to what could be possible with color, and also teaching me to trust designers. Everybody gets their own myopic perspective on everything. Cheryl really helped us to realize trusting the designers, to see what they’re going to do with our component. It opened us up and it bought color into our lives.

Green hide (Photo: courtesy of Kyle Bunting)

CJ: After you saw that image, did you immediately start playing with color?

KB: Yes, we started with one single color; and all of a sudden we went from having seven or eight natural colors, which would be like taking a drive to the country, and there you see the colors grazing, to a palette of fifteen or sixteen. Now the whole palette has seventy or so, so you got about fifty dyed and twenty natural options. Nobody else has that.

CJ: So back then did you do single color rugs, or did you combine colors like at that point?

KB: Both.

CJ: Immediately? Just from doing that one green rug?

KB: Yes. Most of what we did always was not restricted by print because we did everything online. So I started finding tanneries, requesting custom dyelots, putting the colors together, and then photographing them and uploading them to the website. So now I could say, “We’ve got fuchsia! It’s called azalea. Order it!” And I remember a designer from Japan ordered a herringbone runner in all fuchsia. It looked like somebody had killed Barney, and chopped him up and made him into this rug. It was just awesome! It did some tremendous things for us.

“Mr. Crowley” in Azalea designed by John Opella (Photo: courtesy of Kyle Bunting)
“Maroc” designed by Kris Lajeskie (Photo: courtesy of Kyle Bunting)
“Confusion” designed by Kyle Bunting (Photo: courtesy of Kyle Bunting)

Color and the whole process helped us to understand how our work relates to branded designers and collections. When designers are branded they get a royalties, and we have done our fair share of that. We have done work with David Rockwell, an outstanding brand and individual. We also worked with Jiun Ho here locally, who is immensely talented and who has incredible vision. John Opella, who is not only a good friend and outstanding designer, but also one of New York City’s finest decorative painters, has designs in there as well, as do Jim Bunting and Kyle Bunting.

What we did from the beginning, and which was really important to us, was two things: when you specify something it is the same price per square foot, any pattern, any color, any size. I don’t care if it is round, square, trapezoid. I don’t care what the repeat is. We are going to figure out how many square feet that is, and we are going to charge you that cost. If you bring me a new crazy complex pattern, I might surcharge you just a little, just to figure it out. But usually we just say, “If you let me add that to our library, and we’ll credit you” we put just build in. We will have something else to offer other customers. We felt very early on that it was really important to have 100% flexibility on the specification side where you could get exactly what you wanted. When we said custom, we meant custom. The other thing was that we wanted to be very, very design neutral.

Let me be clear, I get a lot of credit, which we probably have earned, for innovation, and for probably creating a new category for decorative design. Hide rugs and products we make did not exist or weren’t what they are now, and we take credit for that. But design credit for being some great vision on the pattern and detail side goes to the designers. But we are quick to tell you that we created this really cool thing and that we’ll want some credit for that, and if you try to compete with me on the cowhide side of the leather business, good luck.

“Black Dog” designed by Kyle Bunting (Photo: courtesy of Kyle Bunting)
“Rewind” designed by Ryan Brewer (Photo: courtesy of Kyle Bunting)
“Rip Cord” rug in living room designed by Geoffrey Bradfield (Photo: Peter Rymwid)

CJ: So where are the rugs actually made?

KB: They are made by hand in our studio in Austin, Texas, in six weeks or less, by the way. We get our hides from Italy. What happens in the leather business in the U.S. is that actually salt-packed skins are put on barges and run down to Mississippi from where they go to South America to get tanned and then brought back here. This business does not exist in North America.

CJ: They don’t have the skills to do the work here?

KB: No, the perception of chemically pervasive activities involved, for political purposes, they are have legislated it out of the country to win points and win favor with various constituents for being perceived as helping everybody out. But it’s just like any other political story that killed an industry in the process. Now whether that’s good or not, whether that business should have left or not, whether there was the environmental benefit worth the job losses or not, is for somebody else to decide. But the good news is if you are trying to be sustainable and ecologically friendly, then it is actually a benefit to have that business, if it is chemically delicate, to be centralized in one area, because you develop specialists and you develop treatment for water, and it is controlled to its best degree.

Going to Northern and central Italy, where most of this leather is tanned, you see these small towns that share the water treatment facilities. When the machine breaks they pick up the phone, and the guy runs down the road, puts the parts back in, and they keep going. You couldn’t do that here. The good news for people using leather and wondering if it is a sustainable resource, Italian leather is as sustainable as you can get, because it is all done in one place, and they have perfected the process. It’s an aggregate.

It would almost be as if you tried to take LCD television manufacturing and decide that it doesn’t need to made in Japan or Korea and think that Puerto Rico is a great place to do that. You just couldn’t invent that business there, or do it in an environmentally practical way. So we get our leather from Italy, from tanneries that are focused on sustainable production. But from my side of the business I challenge anyone that finds out a business model that is built to be sustainable from the ground up, and they actually yield the numbers we do, so that less material is necessary, which is the best way to do it. We use it everything.

CJ: You don’t have to make coasters from scraps?

KB: No, we don’t.

“Photograph” designed by John Opella (Photo: courtesy of Kyle Bunting)
“Caravan” designed by Jiun Ho (Photo: courtesy of Kyle Bunting)
“Surrender” rug in living room designed by Allan Moore & Associates Interiors
(Photo: courtesy of Kyle Bunting)

CJ: You don’t have to. What did you actually study when you went to university, and how does it relates to what you do today?

KB: I think it sounds like it relates more than it really does. I was actually in one of those college programs where it was an inter-college program between the local Liberal Arts School at the University of Texas and the business school. So I have a very unique degree, the only one that I know of. I have a Bachelor of Arts in Marketing. So I have a liberal arts degree; I have a BA in marketing from a Liberal Arts College at the largest public school in the country.

CJ: And then you went into TV, then a little real estate, than back to the roots with your father’s idea, and then a whole new career?

KB: So for me the curve was university to this television business we created and sold, to real estate development, which kind of created the design bug, to this idea, and low and behold now the joke is that I am now seeking to become the Hide-Master of the Universe.

CJ: The Hide-Master of the Universe. You may be on your way. Last year you created a limited edition of furniture for Gump’s. How did that come about?

KB: My wife and I used to live in a building in Pacific Heights, and Diane Dorrans Saeks was our neighbor. Diane not only became a professional resource for me, she also became a customer and has a Kyle Bunting carpet in her house. She was an early customer, and Diane actually knew Marta Benson, the CEO of Gump’s, and said, “You really ought to meet Marta. They’re doing some exciting things at Gump’s. You and her need to get together.” She introduced me, and when Marta and I met I actually had a period where I did angel investing, or very light venture work. No means to infer that I was a V. C., but I provided some capital to some people who had some good ideas. One of the companies that I helped fund was a furniture rental company that operates internationally, called Home Essentials.

One of the other investors was a group called Cardinal, which was run by a guy named Rusty Rose. Rusty was famous because he was George W. Bush’s partner when he owned the Texas Rangers baseball team; but he was also one of the early investors in Restoration Hardware. Marta used to work for Restoration Hardware. So we instantly connected a bunch of rally wacky dots on people who we were two degrees of separation on, and just really kind of hit it off.

Erik Hughes, Kyle Bunting, Marta Benson, Christian P. Arkay-Leliever (Photo: Drew Altizer)

CJ: Well Marta is fabulous, so that’s easy.

KB: She’s amazing anyway! Marta said, “You know, let’s do something.” She was so thoughtful and courteous; she knew how our trade relationships worked, our showrooms and said that she did not want to be a problem. So this was over two years ago. It took about a year of some phone calls and running into each other, kind of the romance of “What do we do?” to kind of get our heads around what might be possible. I registered at Gump’s when I got married, and a few other places. But Gump’s was the place with all the china and flatware, a brand that is forever embedded. I have a Gump’s old croc wallet that I carried for years and bought when they had a store in Dallas, Texas. This is an old brand. But Marta and I were persistent with one another, trying to figure stuff out.

Family room at the “Modern by Design” Metropolitan Home Showcase
designed by Jeffers Design Group with custom rug (Photo: Matthew Millman)

KB: Late in 2009 we kind of ran into each other at the Met Home Showhouse, a project we did with Jay Jeffers, who is an outstanding designer. He is just great, what a great guy! So Marta and I sat down, and she said, “What do you want to do?” and she offered a blank canvas. I said that our brand is involved in our tagline, which we say is “the extraordinary in hide”, now predominantly a surfacing material. And our claim to fame is this piecework we do that doesn’t require any stitching; so it looks really incredible and its highly detailed design work. That’s our bread and butter. But I really have a vision for what we can do that is much more interesting than just cowhide rugs.

I said, “With your permission, I’d like to create some interesting artistic impressions. Some of them would be wrapped in canvas, some of them would be in form of furniture. I actually would like to create some furniture items that would be practical. And I’d like to do it in a very vibrant and eye-catching way that will get people’s attention, and to fulfill my objective in this, which is to show people what’s really possible and turn them on to something else.” Marta and Gump’s couldn’t have been more supportive. Their goal and their mission was to find a way to show people that Gump’s is more than what you think it is, and there are all these cool crazy things happening there and you should go check them out.

CJ: Because Gump’s had kind of gone in a different direction at some point, until Marta came on board and brought it back to what everybody loved.

KB: Exactly! They bought it back to what it was. So what they’ve tried to do is say, “Look, we’re going to bring in people to do something kind of cool and give them a lot of flexibility and remind people what’s really great and how much Gump’s cares about design and innovation.” So we decided to do the furniture and to imbed some of the collection patterns into the items themselves. I thought why not integrate elements of the rugs and wall coverings we’re known for into the line itself. For me, this was the easiest way to show capability and design potential. Additionally, we felt a vibrant color palette was critical.

Ottomans (Photo: courtesy of Kyle Bunting)
“Clutch” table with two intertwined shapes representing Kyle and Libby Bunting’s relationship (Photo: WR Studio)

On the artistic side we took some of the pattern work from John Opella, Ryan Brewer, who currently runs design for the company, and Christian P. Arkey-Leliever who helped me design a lot of the furniture, and myself. We made four 4′ by 5′ stretched canvases in these beautiful flat walnut frames of our patterns work, but shrunk down to itty bitty pieces. It’s really cool, it’s really raw, and it has a lot of handwork where it is not quite as tailored. But it’s vibrant, and it’s hide and it’s wow. That was what we did on the art side.

“Shift” art designed by John Opella (Photo: WR Studio)
“Flume” art designed by Ryan Brewer (Photo: WR Studio)

On another transitional side, that’s more art meets furniture, I found this great resource, and I bought these old Mannheim frames, these old Louis XVI chair frames. Manheim is a legendary, old school furniture company. Your mother’s mother knows the name, and many still swear by it. I think that history and legacy is pretty special. So I went out and found ten people who had a relationship to the business and who were designers who I really cared for and appreciated, and thought would like to do this. I said “Hey, we are doing this thing with Gump’s, and I’d like you to design a chair”. On the showroom side, both Eric Hughes and Geoffrey De Sousa both designed chairs, our local impresarios, and Marvin Wilkinson and John Ellsworth who own John Brooks, who also represent us in Scottsdale. Kara Mann, a dynamic designer out of Chicago, designed a chair. Jan Showers, a great designer and furniture producer in Dallas, designed a chair. We also have Kris Lajeskie who is an outstanding designer in New Mexico and New York, and Holly Hunt, who represents us and is incredible supportive, put chairs together. And there are a few others.

Art chairs from left to right (Photo: WR Studio)
“Erik” by Erik Hughes
“Marvin” by Marvin Wilkinson
“Jan” by Jan Showers
“Art” by Art Ellsworth
“Goeffrey” by Geoffrey De Sousa
Art chairs from left to right(Photo: WR Studio)
“Kara” by Kara Mann
“Tiffany” by Tiffany Antoun
“Kris” by Kris Lajeskie
“Holly” by Holly Hunt

CJ: So this is all limited edition? How many pieces?

KB: Just one.

CJ: Oh, very limited!

KB: Just one original. These are not production items, these are artistic chairs. They are available for sale, a portion of the proceeds goes to Gump’s charity, which is the California College of the Arts. They are all individual one-of-a-kind expressions. With the other furniture we wanted to take the custom experience the designers know from the showroom side of the business into the retail environment, but make it really simple. So we said, “These are the five different finishes that you can put on the wood, and here are nineteen colors. I have matching lacquer, and I have a matching cowhide, and you can mix and match all of this in any way. So, if you want pink lacquer on the console, and you want those four cream and brown leathers wrapped on it, great.” It’s the most simplistic structure, narrow and simple way. It works great for retail, because we took the fabric part, which is what designers know as the most fun but is the most challenging from a client’s side, and simplified it.

“Runway” consoles in various finishes and hide colors (Photo: WR Studio)

CJ: You obviously make the rugs. Who makes the chairs, who makes the consoles?

KB: We have partners we work with to produce all this stuff. So, we have the art chairs that are one of a kind and we have the artwork. But we actually have production pieces that have hide integrated into the pieces in some form or fashion, because it’s our signature material.

CJ: So as a result, you are now also a furniture manufacturer.

KB: So, yes we are now in the furniture business with Kyle Bunting Hide Furniture. In the line there is a wood-based and hide-covered ottoman, there is what could best be described as the blending of a club and a wing chair with a wood base and covered in long furry silver hide. I don’t know if it looks like it’s about to run away, or it looks like a goat, but it is a very comfortable chair. There is also a console, which I’m very excited about because it’s a nesting console. As designers we know a lot of time we try to find the right length console. It is a long rectangular console, I think about eighteen by maybe fifty, but it has two narrow tables that nest from the side that you can slide in and out, and the pattern continues across the top. So, you can stretch it to fit the back of a sofa, whatever your needs are, with one piece of furniture.

“Fog Hide” chair (Photo: courtesy of Kyle Bunting)
“Runway” console (Photo: WR Studio)

CJ: That is an innovative piece. Who designed it?

KB: I designed it! Sure, this is my thing. There is also a similarly designed cocktail table. And there is a focal table that includes brass and wood and a wrap that is very interesting to me. But in my opinion, the signature piece is a screen. We have created hide damask, and it must be seen to be believed. On one side of the screen we have cut the pattern in a platinum silver and a slate blue, but then on the other side the background is like a slate blue with a platinum silver, and with the same finish on both sides. So what you get is a piece of furniture that if you just turn it around is still the same item with the same color, but it just feels a little different.

“Neu” screen (Photo: WR Studio)
“Neu” screen reverse side (Photo: WR Studio)
Custom “Cowboy Hat” wall covering at the W Hotel in Dallas, TX
designed by Tracy Overbeck Stead(Photo: courtesy of Kyle Bunting)

CJ: So how did you arrive at that? You worked with two-dimensional color blocking patterns for years and years, and all of a sudden you’re designing three-dimensional objects.

KB: I had a lot of help from a lot of really talented people. Christian P. Arkey-Leliever is an incredibly talented designer whom we had met through the licensing relationship we had with David Rockwell, and with whom we developed a great professional as well as personal relationship. Christian had designed furniture for Hickory Chair. I embraced him, and I said, “We’re friends, let’s do this together and figure this out”. And he was beyond significant in the development of a lot of these items.

CJ: So was he a muse, a technical advisor?

KB: A little bit of everything, a confidant, an assistant, everything you could think of. For example the damask pattern that’s on the screens is a pattern Christian developed for us a couple of years ago. He is an immensely talented man. Somewhere between Mrs. Bunting and her support, and just what she brings to the table in every way for me personally, and Christian’s professional support in understanding furniture and being a designer, is what really made this stuff a reality. This would have never happened without the two of them, and of course without Marta’s support.

CJ: It must be exciting, because while when you successful with your business doing the same thing, it must be rewarding to create something entirely new and different. It has always been cowhides. Have you ever thought about maybe other hair-on-hides, like rabbit for example?

KB: No, we are very, very strict and focused on cowhide. Cowhide is a piece of leather that is a sustainable resource. I’m not a supporter of using fur product, not for a political reasons or anything like that, it is just not my thing. It is not durable enough for what we do, for the surfacing applications on the floor, and it is also a little bit tricky to work with, for the way we do things. Cowhides are perfect! I don’t want to use horses. I am a fan of Mr. Ed, and we like horses. So we’re sticking to cow and hair-on-hide leather.

CJ: How about laser-cutting holes and such?

KB: Actually on the design side everything we do is developed digitally and cut by very sophisticated machines that use knives as opposed to lasers, to get a cleaner cut, and then everything is handmade. It’s like an Exacto knife controlled by a machine that runs really fast, and is incredibly sharp, and you better get out of its way.

CJ: And hairs must be flying everywhere. How do you keep it contained?

KB: My business is probably dirtier than the indoctrination barbershop at the U.S. army where they shave everybody’s head when they come in. I’m the only place that has more hair everywhere than that place.

CJ: What do you do with all that little fuzz?

KB: We vacuum it up and clean it. It’s one of those natural by-products, it’s beyond biodegradable, its hair. It disappears very quickly.

CJ: You have gone into a whole new direction with the furniture. Do you have any other ideas and uses you might want to explore?

KB: I have wall covering, rugs, upholstery, furniture, and we also do art. Really the possibilities are unlimited. We have done all sorts of quirky things we don’t promote. We have done lampshades for Gump’s. We recently did a huge tapestry for a client with these insignias and some monograms in it. I think the point of these examples is that we are finding immense challenges and immense opportunities within this business. I think we are lucky in that we have a good idea and we a quality product. So we are getting requested and getting recognized. What we wanted to do all along, which was to have designers call us with crazy ideas. It’s really been a hell of a journey, and I think we’re just beginning a scratch of what is possible. So our idea is to innovate and use this material in every possible way.

“Jet Stream” wall covering in bedroom designed by Eric Roseff Designs
(Photo: courtesy of Eric Roseff Designs)
Custom cowhide bedspread designed by Merle Lindby-Young
(Photo: courtesy of Merle Lindby-Young)

CJ: How about your durability? How about a bunch of stilettos on a rug at big cocktail parties?

KB: There’s is an interesting irony about hair on hide, in that it is the inverse of a normal rug, highly stain resistant. Spill peanut butter on it get a piece of gum stuck on it, you can clean it off, no problem. With normal rugs that’s a huge deal, right? The biggest problem for hair on hide is the vacuum cleaner. The only problems we ever have with this product are the beater brushes. So when we ship our products we tell people to vacuum it only if you can put it on a very high setting, where it will lift, but no beater brush is involved, or preferably please sweep it and vacuum around the edges. Also if you put a cigarette on it, or you break an ink pen in two, and you get some on the rug that you absolutely cannot clean or fix, just send it to us, and we will get the pieces out, repair the rug and send it back to you.

CJ: How do you get the same color again?

KB: Trade secret.

CJ: Fair enough, but most importantly you can fix anything.

KB: Yes we can fix it.

“Crush” designed byChristian P. Arkay-Leliever (Photo: courtesy of Kyle Bunting)
“Promenade” rug at David Sutherland Showroom (Photo: courtesy of Kyle Bunting)

CJ: Have you not had that brainstorm over a decade ago what might you be doing professionally today?

KB: Having been in the production and executive side of television, I would probably be involved in some kind of kooky branding, advertising, marketing way, because it is very natural to me. Invariably I probably would have ended up there, helping innovators and companies that had something really cool find a way to get their voice heard. I would have ended up, God forbid, in the advertising business.

CJ: Now you are doing all that for Kyle Bunting.

KB: Yes, promotions for my own business.

“Loop” by Ryan Brewer (Photo: courtesy of Kyle Bunting)
“Ripcord” designed by Ryan Brewer (Photo: courtesy of Kyle Bunting)

CJ: Who is Kyle Bunting without his fabulous hides? I think I’ve got a pretty good idea. But please ad if you like.

KB: You have figured it out. I’m me. Although our company profile is fairly high, my world is a fairly private affair. I am in an incredible place: I’ve got a business that it is busting at the seams and is doing incredibly well. We are having a blast! I am married to an insanely great woman, and we got awesome kids.

CJ: What do you guys do for fun?

KB: I play with my kids, and anything with little kids is fun. Doughnuts on weekend mornings to watching movies, whatever it is, with children the simple things in life are incredibly better.

CJ: So the best thing that ever happened to you was going to that bar?

KB: Yeah, this business started and developed in the 2000s, or in the Os. Three incredibly important things happened to me in the Os: Caroline Bunting was born in Austin a five years ago, and Jack Bunting was born in San Francisco over seven years ago. But literally almost ten years ago was the weekend of the Union Street Fair when I stumbled into Mrs. Bunting, and that changed everything.

CJ: You fell in love, and an idea was born in that energy.

KB: All that energy, and my wife went in that direction. God bless her! That’s the story! We are enjoying life.

CJ: That’s the story, thank you.

KB: Thank you.

“Eclipse” in lobby at Bisha Hotel & Residences designed by Munge Leung
(Photo: courtesy of Kyle Bunting)