Arts & Design

The engineering feats behind the first-ever leather laptop

How the high-tech inspiration for the HP Spectre Folio came from handcrafted traditions.

By Ali Morris — October 1, 2018

Five years ago, HP's Global Head of Design Stacy Wolff and his team asked themselves a simple question: Could our technology products be more human? The metals and plastics that have long been used to make electronic devices are certainly functional and simple to construct, but are arguably lacking in warmth and tactility.

"Have you sniffed your PC recently?" asks Wolff. "Other than a whiff of ozone, they generally really don’t have a smell, there is no memory associated with them. It’s pretty cold. We wanted something that offered more than that, and that was our mission.”

Eager to design a completely new notebook that could evoke an emotional connection with its user, the HP Design Team began a search for a game-changing material. However, instead of experiments in a laboratory with futuristic high-tech finishes, the team’s search took them to the tannery. Inspired by the timeless leather cases and straps that housed gadgets such as cameras and sewing machines, the team dreamt up a laptop that wasn't just wrapped in leather, but was in fact made from one continuous piece of it.

Bringing the leather notebook into reality is something that Wolff calls a feat of “manucrafturing” — a word that he says describes the blend of cutting-edge technology with the carefully honed skills of a leather craftsperson.

Conceived of more than five years ago and developed over a two-year period, the team made countless prototypes to explore how different thicknesses of leather could bend and bond with the electronic components — 0.7 millimeters ended up being the sweet spot. They created a strong but extremely lightweight magnesium skeleton and built the smallest motherboard in the company’s history.

The result is the HP Spectre Folio, an alluring, leather-bound PC with contrast stitching that opens up to reveal a lightweight and slender notebook with a 13-inch, optional 4k screen and a CNC aluminum keyboard deck and touchpad. Forty magnets embedded in the HP Spectre Folio's body intuitively guide it between four different positions: open upright as a classic notebook; propped up on itself as a media player; folded flat open as a tablet; or folded closed as a leather-bound folio. A discreet stylus transforms it into a notepad for those who want to sketch, while integrated Bang & Olufsen speakers provide pitch-perfect acoustics.

“Now that we use screens all day, tech products are under more pressure to be soft and texturally enticing.” 

Sarah Housley, WGSN's senior lifestyle and interiors editor

"We literally reinvented the entire process of manufacturing a PC," said Wolff of the versatile design. "Leather was a material that was untested in the PC industry. In the HP Spectre Folio’s case, the leather makes it functional. We had to find an exact thickness of leather that would not only provide the right feel and texture but also behave in the right way in terms of a hinge.”

Trend forecasting company WGSN has been tracking the move towards soft technology for the past eight years. "As lifestyles get more and more digital, we seek out the physical, natural and tactile as a counterbalance — and particularly now that we use screens all day, both smartphones and computers, the tech products we use are under more pressure to be soft and texturally enticing, too," says WGSN's senior lifestyle and interiors editor, Sarah Housley. "Tech devices are also becoming a more intimate part of the home, and so the CMF (color, materials, finish) of these products has become quickly softer, warmer, more tactile and more friendly."

Indeed, Wolff says the Spectre Folio demonstrates how HP’s products are no longer regarded as technology designed for only one aspect of our lives. Instead they are lifestyle products that travel with us throughout the day supporting all of our activities — a concept that  HP’s Personal Systems business has coined “One Life.” Other products that fall into this category include the recently launched HP Tango, a new app-controlled wireless printer that looks more like a felt-covered coffee-table book or a decorative item than a piece of technology. In this new era of technology, products camouflage themselves rather than scream for attention.

“These products represent who we are and they adapt to how we work,” Wolff says. “In the industry there is a tendency to follow a direction that has been set for many years, but it’s a minimal direction — you have to use add-ons and accessories to express yourself. We wanted to make sure that customers could express themselves through the device itself.”

Recognizing this consumer desire to personalize devices as you might with a pair of shoes or a handbag, the HP design team chose to launch the Spectre Folio in two colorways: cognac brown leather with a dark ash keyboard, and burgundy leather with a luminous gold keyboard.

"Because tech is becoming more and more central to our lifestyles, most technology brands are repositioning to become lifestyle brands," informs Housley. "They are realizing that they don’t operate in a bubble — and can’t afford to — so they are investing in being present across more industries, including design and fashion, and on talking to the consumer more clearly."

During a preview of the HP Spectre Folio, which took place at the 2018 London Design Festival, Wolff teased that in addition to hand-stitched leather, there are other materials for this device in the pipeline, signaling that HP Spectre is a game-changing launch.

“We set about to create a product that would set a new direction in the industry,” he says. “When consumers see this product they’re going to feel like they have to have it.”


Learn more about the HP Spectre Folio.