A look of pure concentration is seen on Phiona Li’s face as she meticulously carves intricate patterns into leather at her studio, Small Step Cultural Space, in Xiping.
Phiona has been perfecting the art of leather crafting for the past six years and has worked in the leather industry for 12 years. Working in leather is how she met her now business partners, Tina Tong and Claire Zeng.
“They asked me why I chose the craft. I just have a one-bag-story,” Phiona laughed. “There was a lady’s bag. I saw the whole (leather) carving. It was amazing. I said, ‘Wow, that is, I think, very difficult. I cannot do this.’ But a few years later I wanted to try.”
From the moment she saw that piece, the image stuck with her. She could not get it out of her mind. The design was her inspiration, and she likened the craft to a life partner.
“Leather carving is like my husband: it will always follow me,” she joked.
When she began leather crafting, Phiona sought to learn from the best leather crafters in China. She continued to develop her signature flower designs and started honing her skills in realistic animal portraits three years ago.
Her work has been recognized all over China—having received various awards. She even received a prestigious award for designing a car pillow for Hongqi cars.
Her business partners and she are working on making leather crafting officially part of China’s cultural heritage. They said it once was, but its recognition was lost throughout history. Phiona gives leather crafting classes in her studio to those interested in learning the technique behind creating a product from a simple leather sheet.
When asked what advice she had for someone who wants to be a leather crafter, Phiona sighed saying it was difficult, and people needed a lot of patience/time, but the craft is worth learning.