When Marcel Proust was struggling to finish his great novel In Search of Lost Time in Paris in the early 20th century, his nerves frayed and his health in decline, he insulated his bedroom with floor-to-ceiling cork panels to absorb ambient noise and create a haven on Boulevard Haussmann. It was practical, sustainable and accidentally chic. A century later, some of the world’s most innovative designers have adopted the material for the same reasons – but elevated it with sharp styling and silhouettes.
Earlier this year, Jasper Morrison showed his Corks collection as an installation at the Kasmin Gallery in New York. Morrison has form with the material. Back in 2004, he created a series of pieces for Vitra – the Cork Family – that serve as stools or side tables, and in 2015 he showed a prefab hut made from the same material for Muji at Tokyo Design Week. His new design – incorporating chairs, a table and a bookshelf – were made from materials reconstituted from unused wine-bottle corks. “It has a special feel that I find irresistible,” says Morrison. “It needs treating sculpturally rather than structurally, which makes it interesting to design with, and has a good effect on the atmosphere of a room. Apart from representing a renewable, zero per cent waste industry and providing a source of carbon absorption, it also has some remarkable properties: it’s rot-proof, insect-proof, waterproof and naturally fire-retardant.”
Some of the most distinctive pieces of design from the last few years have been realised in cork. Claudio Bitetti’s King & Queen side tables and stools for Mogg design riff on chess pieces. They are abstract rather than jokey, with circular layers that appear as if shaped on a potter’s wheel. When Portuguese-Swiss furniture brand Movecho created The Spherical chair, it was essentially upsizing a miniature ’60s art work by the architect Miguel Arruda. The curves and pod-like nature of the piece are elegant and slightly retro, but the use of cork subverts it – and in this material it feels more organic and contemporary.
The juxtaposition of cork with more obvious materials in a single design packs a visual punch. Three years ago, when Alain Gilles was working on his Assemblage coffee table designs for Bonaldo, he experimented with the idea of density and mass, adding blackened wood to a cork dome – the heavier element on top of the lighter one. “The typology of a side table with a heavy base supporting a lighter tray is a well-known one, so it was fun to create a table that looks massive while its base is something that could almost float,” he says. Gilles also likes the raw and grained aesthetic – appearing as though it has just been cut from the tree.
Cork tells a story. When London-based designer Michael Sodeau was developing his simple but witty Bob stool for Modus, he went to Porto in Portugal – the country is the biggest producer of cork in the world. “I found an old family-run factory that makes and recycles corks,” he says. “Their use in the wine industry is in decline so they have diversified into flooring, wall coverings and furniture. The material is incredibly robust and versatile.”
The São Paulo-based Campana Brothers, Fernando and Humberto, also took inspiration from Portuguese history for the Sobreiro collection of furniture, launched last year with Corticeira Amorim. “Cork has always fascinated us, not only because it’s an ecological material but because of its lightness. The texture, the variety of applications and insulation enrich the possibilities of expressing new concepts and gestures through the material,” says Humberto Campana. The pieces produced look as primal as they do sculptural – demonstrating just how dramatic and modern cork can appear when manipulated in unexpected ways.