How a Runway Shoe Designer is Bringing Leather to Home Kitchens

June 13, 2016

It's not everyday that we ooh and ahh on this site about the work of fashion designers. Our favorite "designs"—like live-edge cutting boards, crinkly linen bedding, and glossy flower vases—aren't usually found in a clothes closet.

So when a new Leather Knife Grabber arrived in a recent product review, and our Director of Buying, Jojo, told us all that it was made by a mens shoewear designer, our interest in fashion—or at least the story behind this particular product's genesis—was newly piqued.

Nguyen's Leather Knife Grabber, now available in our Shop. Photo by Bobbi Lin

Dien Nguyen, a native of Northern Virginia, was raised in a restaurant; his family owns Saigon Café in Sterling, Virginia. And while he's always loved to cook and be in the kitchen because of it, he sought broader horizons (and a different vantage point) when he went off to college at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California to study industrial design—specifically focusing on sports equipment and furniture design.

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Dien half-expected to go on designing lacrosse helmets for a living until he was recruited by Gordon Rush in Los Angeles to work on a new line of shoes. The job didn't last, but his newfound passion for footwear did; he moved to New York and landed a gig designing shoes at Ralph Lauren.

Fast forward ten years, and Dien has added so many big brand names to his resume that he can safely say "I've worked for everybody" without much exaggeration: Cole Haan, Alexander Wang, Calvin Klein, and department store lines for Macy's and Nordstrom, to name a few. His areas of expertise: mens' shoes and accessories (think belts, wallets, and bags). He started dabbling in kitchen design because, well, he needed some pieces for himself.

An avid cook (he's known for his soft shell crab agadashi), Nguyen has nice knives—"the knife is the most important tool in the kitchen!" he tells me (we couldn't agree more, Dien!)—and he started making leather sheaths to protect his.

When he took his knives to Ross Cutlery in L.A. to be sharpened, they inquired about the sheaths. And then they asked if he could make a hundred of them to stock in the store. The Honest Company came calling for a batch as well; Nguyen realized it was time to start a company of his own.

Enter Vienna Leather Goods and, a little later, this beauty of a leather knife grabber:

Why leather? It's the material Dien was most familiar with from his career as a shoe designer, yes, but it also makes perfect sense for the kitchen. "Leather is durable, long-lasting, and it protects from heat," he explains; he's used it to make oven mitts, coasters, and trivets, too. And he sources it from American cattle, to support a domestic industry but also because of quality:

"American hide is known as the best hide in the world," he says, "because we eat so much meat and raise so many cows, and we grow our cows so big, that the hides, too, are bigger and thicker."

The American leather for Dien's knife grabber is prepped at the tannery the same way leather for a shoe's sole would be: Hides are de-haired, -greased, -salted, and then soaked in preparation for vegetable-tanning. During tanning, they're soaked in baths containing tree bark (a mix of chestnut, oak, hemlock, mangrove, and the like). They're stretched over frames, then waxed and compressed under a roller, split to an even thickness, dried, ironed, and sorted into grades. All before they arrive in his Brooklyn workshop.

There, Dien trims the leather to the size of the magnetic knife bar and glues three pieces on top of each other before finishing it into a finalized piece.

The three layers of leather in our knife grabber are compressed just as they would be in a shoe heel. Photo by Rocky Luten

I asked Nguyen how he knew the magnets were strong enough to get through all that leather; he tells me it took a lot of prototyping and sourcing to find the strongest rare earth magnets, a type of magnet often used in knife grabbers. "I knew the heaviest thing that someone would hang on it was a giant butcher's knife," he says, "but I tested it with giant blocks of metal, and pots and pans, to see what held."

We're as excited about the heavy-duty (and storied) construction of our first Vienna Collection piece as we are about its future: Being made from leather, each Leather Knife Gabber is guaranteed to patina and soften with time. If there were ever a reason to bring fashion into your kitchen, it's now.

You can shop for our new Leather Knife Grabber from the Vienna Collection here.

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Amanda Sims

Written by: Amanda Sims

Professional trespasser.

1 Comment

AVEITOS October 24, 2016
excellent blog! and the shoes are very good .which make me want to buy one some day.