Sitting in a sunny, plant-filled room sipping tea with Melina and David – the couple behind Oficio Studio – it’s hard to imagine them doing anything other than making their beautiful, handmade leather bags. But there have been many and various strands to their working lives – as lawyer, architect, bike restorer and factory owner – with each playing its own role in Oficio Studio’s success story.
We begin by talking about the beginning: that chance meeting that set Melina and David together on a new path towards artisan living.
The part-studio part-home space where we now sit – just off the tree-lined elegance of Paseo del Prado in the heart of Madrid – used to be David’s bike shop and where the couple first met.
He explains, ‘I opened the bike shop to restore old bicycles. One day, about three years ago, Melina walks in with her bike. I spotted her handbag. And she spotted some leather bike accessories I had for sale, such as handlebars and carry-on bags and so we got talking about leather!’
Melina continues ‘He admired my handbag and I told him I made it myself.’ Which is the where the little white lie comes in. ‘That wasn’t strictly true,’ she admits, ‘as I was still taking classes at that time to learn how to make things out of leather. Then David told me he used to have a leather factory and that kept us talking for longer’.
Leather as a raw material clearly has a special pull for both Melina and David. David grew up with leather as his dad worked for an aunt who owned a leather factory. ‘My father was the middleman. He was in charge of selling the goods. So for a time I did this too. Eventually I had my own factory along with all its responsibilities of production and employees. It was probably the biggest mistake I made in my life.’ He goes on, ‘My day-to-day life was paper work and the management of the business and I had little connection with the making of the product itself, which was what I craved. So I left leatherwork behind for 10 years and opened my bike shop. I wanted to have a business where I could get my hands dirty, keep it small and do everything myself.’
In some ways David’s own frustrations with the factory were similar to Melina’s and her experience as an architect. A shared dissatisfaction with a lack of involvement in the production process drew them together and towards becoming hands-on leather workers.
Melina graduated in Architecture (in Mexico where she’s from originally), but found that the way architects often work on just a tiny part of a larger building didn’t appeal to her. She says, ‘architecture seemed to involve many people sharing a design because usually projects are too big for just one person to do.’ She goes on, ‘but I could see how to bring this process of architecture into leatherwork. We meet a client, show them the materials and then we design, produce and deliver a bag, one by one.’
When she told David this is how she wanted to make leather goods, he says he was sceptical at first. ‘For me, the way to make money was to buy and sell a product – not manufacture it. That’s a direct result of my experiences as a factory-owner,’ he explains. ‘But then I realised that actually, if I want to keep the venture small, without the stress of having employees and remove third parties from the selling process, then hand-making in this way was the way forward.’
‘I was proposing that we really do all of it ourselves. No one else was working in this way at the time or only just beginning to, like us. And that was just three years ago,’ adds Melina.
And making money has never been the be all and end all for the pair. They rejected the more conventional career path, for which they both trained hard, and went all out for a crafter’s life. A brave, lifestyle choice that obviously comes out of a genuine thirst to do something well and with soul. Their sunny studio is testament to this need, exuding a warm atmosphere of industrious calm. Dominated by a large worktable scattered with the tools of their trade, everywhere I look there is leather. Spools of thread line up on window ledges, plants cascade from various surfaces and light floods in through the windows onto an eclectic mix of vintage objects, both functional and decorative.
Each day Melina and David sit facing each other at the worktable, methodically crafting by hand every piece of the bags. Melina works at the sewing machines that line the room, whilst David cuts the pieces of vegetable-dyed Spanish leather that all the bags are made from. Pedales, their long-haired Jack Russell, can often be found mooching around or sleeping on an old sheepskin under a workbench. It’s looks like an enviable life; is it everything they imagined?
Melina answers, ‘I wanted to hand craft each bag entirely, to do everything ourselves with our own hands and that’s what we’re doing. Ok so we’re not going to get rich fast but we love the freedom Oficio Studio gives us and how rewarding the work is. We have time to see our friends and we’re not tied to office hours like so many.’
Melina and David are mostly self-taught, which is not necessarily the usual way to learn a craft but one that many modern artisans are adopting. She quit her formal leatherwork classes early on as she felt she wasn’t learning anything new. She tried working alongside David’s uncle for a while too, who was a professional, traditional leather man. ‘But she lasted just three days with him,’ he laughs, ‘he is a cranky old man, as many crafters his age are and he has his own methods that he’s been using for many years. I think it was frustrating for both artisan and student.’
But Melina learnt some of the basics from him such as how to create a sample pattern, and the rest she has learnt by observing. ‘I’ve also been able to apply an architectural approach to designing in leather when I think about proportion, shape and light for example,’ Melina says. She also uses AutoCad – more commonly used by an architect for mapping and sketching designs – to create her own patterns for bags, which again, is very unusual for a more traditional artisan.
It’s this unique combination of traditional craft and modern methods that marks Melina and David’s transition into modern artisans – a new breed of workers not just in Madrid, but in many cities around the world, born out of recession, who want to be in control of their own destiny.
There is a lovely element of serendipity to Oficio Studio’s story. ‘Oficio is the result of a series of circumstances that turned out to be just right for what is happening right now worldwide’, David says. But their success isn’t just down to the hands of fate. It’s a transition that’s been carefully crafted by the very capable hands of Melina and David. Two people that got together to create their own products out of love for each other and working with leather, but also out of necessity.
The severity of the recession flipped many people’s lives upside down in Madrid, but the crisis is proving to be fertile ground for reinvention and new beginnings. Melina says no one was going to employ her at the time as an architect; finding their own path was the only way they were going to survive. David agrees, ‘We reinvented ourselves. Melina was an architect. I was even a lawyer at one time. Now we are entrepreneurs, artisans and we can decide our own futures.’