How it all started
The Meryan workshop officially started up commercial production in May 1958, although painter Angel Lopez-Obrero and his wife, Mercedes Miarons Feliu, began their artistic activity privately in their own studio prior to that date. The name Meryan comes from the names of its founders: MERcedes and (= Y, in Spanish) ANgel.
They started work in Cordoba at the end of 1951, driven by a passion to create artistic leatherwork and a desire to do something useful to revive this ancient craft industry in the city.
Artist Angel Lopez-Obrero was born in Cordoba, but lived for thirty years between Madrid and Barcelona, and returned to his home town in the year 1951 to set up his artist’s studio there. He saw that the once world-famous skill of Cordoban Leatherwork had lost its former glory and production had virtually come to a standstill. Only two or three artists could be found who did occasional work in leather in their private studios, and their work was little known to the local public or nationally, and even less abroad. As far as tourism was concerned, things were even worse. In none of the city shops could a tourist could find examples of leatherwork, those works of handicraft which represented the continuation of the leather work products known as "Guadameciles" or "Cordoban leatherwork" which had made Cordoba into a household name throughout the world.
These circumstances, fuelled by the artist’s passion for applied arts, were the main factors which inspired the Meryan workshop at its experimental, private stage. The first works were not, of course, made on commission, but were spontaneous efforts conjured up to create a demand. They consisted of large-scale, decorative panels, using decorative motifs in traditional styles.
That production was the result of two years of work, but it hardly produced any profit. It achieved public approval and encouragement from the press, but except for rare cases, no customers. There was no doubt in their minds that this type of leatherwork needed a solid business orientation, and so they decided to change their approach and re-launch the business.
During the following years, the direction of work (which was always spontaneous work, without demand) shifted towards better designed decorative works and prices which were more accessible to a wider public. They also started making gift items at more accessible prices.
Apart from the work requested by clients from Paris and other cities, among the commissions placed by clients we should mention a casket ordered by the Cordoba City Council to present orange pips from the Courtyard of the Mosque-Cathedral as a gift to the Peace Garden in Hiroshima (Japan); a door and two leather panels (3 and 5 metres long) designed as counters in the lobby of the "Hotel Cordoba Palace", another special casket which was offered by a group of pilgrims to Pope John XXIII; a complete writing set commissioned by a Cordoban firm as a gift to U.S. President J.F. Kennedy; a book cover with special decorative work, given by the Secretariat of the courses in Christianity to his holiness Pope Paul VI; a finely worked chest, commissioned by the Guadalquivir Valley Water Board for King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain; some leather armchairs for the Marquises of Viana; a tooled leather frame for a scroll, commissioned by Cordoba City Council for the Mayor of Jerez de la Frontera (in the province of Cadiz); and an embossed leather album, commissioned by the Circulo de la Amistad social club, in Cordoba, for photographs of the Floral Games held in 1960 and displayed in the main hall during the literary reception to her ladyship the Duchess of Alba.
Opening to the public
Meryan workshop in the “Zoco” handicraft market and shop in Calleja de las Flores (1958-1980).
In 1956, Cordoba City Council opened the Municipal Market of Handicrafts “El Zoco”, and it was here where the Meryan workshop opened its first shop to the public. This gave an added impetus to the workshop, and the first commissions started to come in.
At this stage, however, the output was still very small and "El Zoco", despite the worthy efforts of the City Council, was not as successful as expected. For this reason, the Meryan workshop changed once again, settling finally, in May 1958, in the Calleja de las Flores, in a spot much frequented by tourists.
From then on, Cordoba could now pride itself on a real family-run craft workshop, dedicated solely to the art of producing “Guadameciles” and artistic leatherwork.
The work was done in full view of the visitors, which tourists from both home and abroad really appreciated, as the different leatherwork techniques could be seen close up. Visitors continually asked questions and made comments and were always delighted to see that this type of handicraft was still going strong in Spain when it had, more often than not, disappeared for good in their own countries. Products manufactured by the Meryan workshop were extremely popular and sold very well and the visitors preferred them to other similar leather products. Visitors to the shop were served by the owner’s family in French and English.
But what tourists visiting the Meryan workshop most liked were the prices. Despite the time it took and the high cost of producing handicraft products, these were sold at very reasonable prices, often with very little difference in price from mass-produced items from Madrid workshops, which were also sold in the shop.
But the articles made in the workshop were only barely viable: the production costs were very high and there was a very narrow profit margin. The desire to offer competitive prices often led to items being sold practically at cost price.
Carlos Lopez-Obrero, Angel's son, joined the workshop and began studying the problem to see how a way could be found to continue making "Cordobanes” and “Guadameciles” with at least a small margin of profit.
Meryan eventually had to change its pricing policy and the price of goods manufactured by the company was raised. Thus, the continuation of the workshop was assured, and none of the traditional artisanal character was lost.
Very important was also the work of the artisan Alejandro López-Obrero in terms of carrying out the most artistic work of creating new designs and carving them into the skin with great mastery. Many of the designs still on display at Meryan were made by Alejandro.
In 1965, a screen was made for the prestigious Altman & Co. store on New York’s Fifth Avenue.
In a letter dated 17 February 1965, the store wrote enthusiastically to thank us, praising the craftsmanship highly.
Also in 1965, the Meryan workshop was involved in a fascinating project to decorate the new Talgo trains that were soon to be launched in Spain.
Guadameci panels were installed in the restaurant cars in trains running on the Barcelona-Paris and Barcelona-Geneva lines.
At this stage, the workshop won its first major award:
- In 1970, the Associated Guild of Craftworkers honoured founder Angel Lopez-Obrero of the Meryan workshop with a silver medal as “most distinguished artisan of the year” and the workshop was also awarded a bronze medal for the “Merit in Tourism Award”.
The 1980s and 1990s were boom years for tourism in Spain: the currency exchange was extremely favourable and Spain was an attractive tourist destination.
The influx of tourists was very noticeable in the workshop, especially Americans and Japanese, who showed great interest in leatherwork and really appreciated our work. These two decades were the company’s best years so far and its prestige spread both in Spain and abroad. The name Meryan appeared in guide books both in America and Europe as a place of interest for tourists to visit in the city of Cordoba.
An article about Meryan was published in the New York Times in 1982 which considerably boosted our popularity in the U.S.A.. At that time, many Americans travelled to Spain and came looking for our shop with the newspaper article tucked under their arm!
Meryan’s business activity continued and between the years 1980-1990, as it opened an establishment consisting of an art gallery for exhibitions and a shop with products from the Meryan workshop in the centre of Cordoba, in Calle Reyes Católicos.
Numerous art exhibitions took place where artists from Cordoba and other cities could display their paintings, but unfortunately, the shop proved to be unprofitable and in the late 1980s, the establishment was finally closed to the public.
In 1989, Angel Lopez-Obrero was awarded a silver medal by the Andalusian Regional Government: an award given to those who have distinguished themselves throughout their lives in different fields of social and cultural activity in Andalusia.
In 1991 we took part in the Spanish Crafts Festival in Japan. The Andalusian Crafts Exhibition was held in Kyoto (Japan). It was entitled "The Spanish Fair", and was organized by firm Kintetsu.
In January 1993, the firm Alejandro y Carlos Lopez-Obrero Ltd was established, keeping Meryan as the company’s commercial name. The founding partners were Alejandro and Carlos, sons of Angel Lopez-Obrero and Mercedes Miarons Feliu. At this time, Carlos's wife, Rafaela Munoz Carmona, also worked at the shop, and did a magnificent job attending the public and helping out in the workshop.
Also that year, the house containing the leather workshop and exhibition underwent major reforms. More space was created for exhibiting the leatherwork, the shop at calle Encarnación, 12, was enlarged, and a room was added on the first floor for exhibition purposes. The courtyard was also rebuilt. The building work lasted around four months and took place in the summer of 1993, which meant that the shop had to be closed to the public until it could be reopened in October 1993.
In 1997, the firm carried out a commission in France at the Chateau de Vervaines in the town of Alençon, which consisted of lining the walls of one of castle rooms with “Guadamecies” depicting different scenes from Arabic and Moorish Cordoba.
The castle was owned by a Syrian magnate who wanted to transform it into a centre for Islamic studies and a museum.
This year also, the Andalusian Regional Government commissioned a “Guadameci” leather casket as a wedding gift for Princess Cristina and Iñaki Urdangarín. We felt that choosing this gift was a way of paying a compliment to our firm and, in general, to the craft of embossed leatherwork, thus attracting even more publicity.
The firm also took part in the 3rd Congress of Leatherworkers, held in Cordoba in 1999, where one of the activities was a visit to the Meryan workshop and shop. These were opened for all those attending the meeting to allow them to personally see the most prestigious firm in the Cordoba leatherwork market in action.
In the same year, a report was published in the El Pais newspaper’s Travel Section on handicraft routes, in which they recommended a visit to the Meryan workshop.
The years 2000 to 2010 saw a profound change in the company, as a process of modernization and a generational change took place.
During this decade, we should mention the production of two carved and gilded armchairs lined with embossed leather in “Guadameci” style with baroque designs commissioned by the Barcelona Provincial Council for display at the Palau Güell, which are still on display in the palace to this day.
Due to the worldwide financial crisis, the company suffered during the years 2003 and 2004 and there was a significant fall in sales. This really brought home how vulnerable the firm was, due to its excessive dependence on foreign tourism, and led us to investigate new markets and look for new sources of income.
In 2003, the firm Meryan took part in a project run by the University of Seville Department of Anthropology, with the support of the Andalusian Regional Government. The idea was to recover 25 traditional Andalusian crafts, and our workshop was chosen to make a short documentary on our production processes and also an exhibition of traditional Andalusian handicrafts, which toured a number of cities. The documentary makes fascinating viewing and it taught viewers a great deal about the handicraft of "Cordobanes” and “Guadameciles” and how they were recovered.
At this time, a display case was set up on the ground floor of the Cordoba department store El Corte Ingles, with a small sample of "Cordobanes” and “Guadameciles”. This proved an excellent showcase for the company and a good way for a different sector of the public to see our products.
From 2005 onwards, a new phase began for the Meryan workshop. Firstly, a generational change took place on the retirement of both Alejandro and Carlos Lopez-Obrero, who handed over the firm to their sons, Daniel and Carlos Lopez-Obrero.rn
They soon saw that major changes were required in the company to adapt to new challenges:
- Saving time by using a computer program (ERP) to run an integrated management system, which would handle all sales, stock, customers, suppliers and accounts in a single application.
- Renewing the products manufactured in the workshop and adapting them to new market demands.
Therefore, in 2006, the website www.meryancor.com was created to give the company an Internet presence. This website has been translated into English and French and includes an extensive catalogue of items produced by our workshop. In the following year, the online web store was launched and now, any item from Meryan can be purchased from anywhere in the world, and the website has boosted the company’s trade considerably.
Francisco Rodriguez Escobar, a master leatherwork craftsman from Cordoba, joined Meryan in this year and brought to the firm his extensive experience in manufacturing "Cordobanes” and “Guadameciles”. His contribution to the workshop has been especially important in the area of embossing and colouring techniques, not to mention his excellent standard of workmanship.
The year 2010, then, really marks the start of an integrated quality control scheme for the entire company that has led to major changes in the way we work, culminating in the publication of a quality control manual, which has led to continuous improvement of our work.
In this year, too, the company joined forces with the Museum of Fine Arts of Cordoba to run day workshops once a month for children aged 5 to 12. These workshops ran for 10 months and were a resounding success among both children and adults.
Nowadays, the company continues to create new products and improve its production processes, adapting constantly to new market trends. We have designed embossed bags, signature books, photo albums, new designs for decorative panels, and have extended our work for religious Fraternities and Brotherhoods.