A Love Affair With Leather - The Story of Bobby Aggarwal and the PortsideCafé Brand

Creators And Collectors

If your idea of leather furniture is a staid brown sofa in a living room, think again. The moment you lay your eyes on the furniture and décor accessories created by Bobby Aggarwal, Designer and Founder of PortsideCafé, your notion of leather will transform forever.

“I wanted to take leather out from the stuffiness of a living room sofa, and put it everywhere,” says Bobby, and that’s exactly what he has done. From coffee tables with roses to trunks in bright hues, from striking chests of drawers in black and white stripes, to lamp shades inspired by coral reefs, Bobby Aggarwal has contrived leather in multiple colours and forms while elevating its regal look.

Multi-coloured leather trunks by PortsideCafe, available on Artisera

Sheer Serendipity

Bobby’s life is defined by serendipity, resulting from his belief that “everyone should try everything at least once”. Born in Delhi, he spent his school years in Bhopal, growing up with an inspirational, idyllic view of two lakes and rambling woods. After graduating in Economics from Delhi University, Bobby moved to Mumbai and took up his first of many jobs, as a management trainee in the erstwhile Century Mills. While on the job, he quickly realized he was more inclined towards a creative vocation, and switched to advertising.

Somewhere during his explorations and experiments in Mumbai, leather happened to Bobby. “An opportunity came my way to try my hand at corporate gifts, and I gave it a shot,” says Bobby. “I decided to create the gifts in leather, as it was an easily available material that could be engineered in Dharavi at a low cost.” This first experience with leather “triggered a response” in Bobby Aggarwal, and he continued to research the material. He found it very attractive as it was malleable, versatile and exceptional in its ability to age well.

Leather Jewelry Box by PortsideCafe

After the Mumbai Riots in 1992, Bobby moved to Delhi, and set up a shoe manufacturing unit, again by pure happenstance. He did that for 7 years. “It was through my trials and errors, that I honed my techniques and craftsmanship,” says Bobby. “People started consulting me on varied design projects and viewed me as a ‘designer’, though it was a label I was reluctant to own. I think it’s only in the last few years, that I’ve convinced myself that I am, in fact, a designer.”

Bobby’s design repertoire grew and he forayed into leather furniture, collaborating with some well-known international brands. And in 2007, he established his own brand of leather furniture, with its first store in New Delhi – PortsideCafé, named after the port town of Mumbai where his affair with leather first began.

The PortsideCafe store in New Delhi

Experiential Inspirations

Every PortsideCafé design brims with novelty and character. “Originality is essential to the design approach,” says Bobby. “When you love something and explore the material, you do different things.”

An inherent element of ‘cool’ emanates from each creation at PortsideCafé, be it in the unique staining or the detailed craftsmanship. There is a retro vibe that reflects Bobby’s love of vintage articles, both in the creation itself, and in the way it is showcased.

The Gondola Coffee Table by PortsideCafe, available for purchase on Artisera

“I’m not a trained designer, so I look back at my experiences for inspiration,” says Bobby. “Mumbai, the city where I actually grew as a person and experienced a cultural explosion, has played a pivotal role in my design. The city’s seascape, the Irani cafés, the zebra stripes of Hughes Road and the Art Deco architecture have all been inspirations.” Likewise, the Islamic art of Bhopal and the bright colours and inherent character of India have also found their way into Bobby’s pieces. Take for instance, the ‘Dak Bangla’ collection - reflected in its clean lines and classic craftsmanship, is the haunting charm of government rest houses where everything is basic and no-frills. 

Railway Room Chair, part of the Dak Bangla Collection by PortsideCafe; available for purchase on Artisera

Aged Charm and Endless Imagination

A trademark of Bobby’s furniture is the aged look and finish that he imparts to even the newest leather articles. “This is our forte; a technique I learnt on the job,” says Bobby. “However, it did take time to educate my team as well as clients, and getting them to appreciate the nuances of the aged look.”

Bobby working on leather with his team in the factory

Obsessive about quality, Bobby does the drawings and meticulously oversees each handcrafted process in-house. He also “lets his team loose” to explore possibilities and arrive at their own interpretations. And it’s because of this culture created by Bobby, that PortsideCafé boasts of rich, diverse and eye-catching collections that include one-of-a-kind trunks, wine bottle holders, board games, lamps, mirrors, work desks, armoires and more.

Mehfil-e-Bahar Chest of Drawers, available for purchase on Artisera

Of Trends and What the Future Holds

Bobby does not believe in following trends, and instead, takes practical design decisions. He candidly admits he has no target audience in mind when he designs his products. “People are tired of regular designs and normal wood furniture,” says Bobby. “Leather has an instinctive feeling about it; the material invites you to touch it and feel the texture. When it comes to leather furniture, for most people, it is about picking that one odd piece that speaks to you, and that you can speak of.”

Rose Bloom Coffee Table; available for purchase on Artisera

Even though leather furniture has traditionally been associated with older people, he has found that younger people are more open to experimenting with his style of leather furniture, with PortsideCafé’s coffee tables being very popular, as well as the striking bar cabinets.

An inside view of the funky Saloon Bar Cabinet; available for purchase on Artisera

Bobby also has a refreshingly pragmatic approach towards maintaining leather. “Just let it be, it gains more character with age. Of course, if you spill something, then you should wipe the stain as soon as possible. If you leave a stain overnight, leather will discolour like any other material. But in general, the leather we use at PortsideCafé tends to last longer, because we don’t use pre-treated leather, and we really work on the material.”

On a parting note, we ask Bobby about his future plans. And in true ‘artistic’ style, he admits, “I’m a manufacturer at heart; money doesn’t really matter to me. What I want, is that I should continue to create beautiful things”.

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