When the artist Sarah Lucas – Britain’s representative at the 2015 Venice Biennale – unveiled her debut collection of signed, limited-edition furniture during Milan’s Salone del Mobile Internazionale in April, her inspiration was strikingly clear. Concrete breeze-block plinths and platforms, previously used to support her artworks, were reimagined as chairs, benches and tables (chair, £8,500) within minimal MDF frames. Far from looking raw or rough, though, these eye-catching creations appeared remarkably sleek. A little austere, perhaps, but unarguably chic.
A similar story unfolded at MDF Italia’s Salone booth, where Jean-Marie Massaud’s Rock tables (dining, from £1,669; bar, £1,542) were launched. With smoked-glass or white-lacquered tops underpinned by cone-shaped concrete bases, these crisp designs clearly chime with contemporary tastes. Meanwhile, the successful introduction of Slovenian architect Tina Rugelj’s My Concrete Garden collection at SaloneSatellite 2012 generated a display of further designs in Milan last year (seat, €620; bench, €1,430; multipurpose seat/planter/storage unit, €450; modular wall panel, €70; doghouse, €480). Strong shapes belie the material’s thinness, lightness and strength, which, says Rugelj, “has a velvety, warm feel because it contains cellulose fibres”.
Concrete has, of course, made occasional forays into interiors before, but recent technological developments have significantly increased its appeal for contemporary designers, who are tempted by a material that is both natural (stone or aggregate embedded with water in cement) and ancient. Its name – meaning compact or condensed – derives from the Latin concretus and the Romans did indeed use it enthusiastically (as in Rome’s Colosseum).
Among the designers determined to change our perceptions of concrete is cabinetmaker Leigh Cameron, who wants “to redefine it within a domestic setting by pushing the boundaries of this truly unique material”. Neither his Skeleton of Trees table (from £495) nor his Weight of Space desk (from £5,000) have any fixings. Their weight alone holds these elegant combinations of concrete and sequoia in position. “Concrete is definitely on a journey into our homes,” he says. “It gives a sense of place and permanence. I love its simplicity and tactile qualities. And its form is only limited by our imagination, because it’s monumentally fluid until dry.” Polished-concrete worktops, such as those by kitchen specialist Roundhouse, can introduce architectural and textural aspects into interiors, but the really exciting developments are in furniture, lighting and home accessories.
As designer Paul Kelley puts it: “I’m sure it isn’t for every home, but it should be, since many homes are made from it. It’s good to take elements of the structure you live in, twist them and have them in the interior.” Kelley, whose new concrete pieces were shown at Paris’s Galerie Joseph Turenne in September, has combined it with copper, glass, acrylic and walnut to create an attractive console table (£9,600, edition of five). “The mitred edges, copper detailing and Perspex collar give it a delicate look, as I wanted to lend a more feminine feel to a masculine material,” he says.
Equally graceful are the soaring concrete supports of Molteni & C’s glass-topped Arc table (from £3,750), designed by Foster & Partners, while the glass-topped, concrete-based Sultanas table ($3,500), made as a limited edition by designer Jorge Diego Etienne for Mexico City’s ADN Galeria, has an energetic dynamism. “I wanted to defy certain preconceptions about it for use in the home,” Etienne says.
“Concrete has lost its crude connotations,” says designer Tim Mackerodt. “New-generation materials like UHPC [ultra-high-performance concrete] are really different from builders’ materials. They’re easy to handle and cheap compared to other casting materials such as polymers. UHPC is fine-grained but very durable, and offers smooth surfaces and strong, thin walls. After many experiments, we ended up folding
the material.” It took six months to develop a process in which fibre-reinforced concrete is rolled out and manually folded on flexible moulds by the studio to produce shapes and surfaces that can’t be created using conventional concrete-casting moulds. His FALT stool (from €2,000), shown in the Smart Sustainable Materials exhibition at Cologne’s furniture fair last year, has thermally treated ash legs wrapped in folded concrete, while the FALT lamp (€695) has a concrete shade weighing less than 2kg.
“We wanted to show how it could be used in ways other than engineering and visualised free formability, thinness and lightness in our furniture designs,” says Lars Schmieder, co-managing partner of Dresden-based design studio Paulsberg. Inspired by the silhouette of a start-line sprinter, Paulsberg’s ergonomically shaped Spurt lounge chair (€2,170) is handmade from a single piece of carbon-fibre-reinforced concrete, while the same material is combined with pearwood to create the smoothly curved Fruits coffee table (€2,470) with integral fruit bowl. “UHPC is an incredible material, with a strength and durability even greater than natural stone,” enthuses designer Steuart Padwick, whose super-thin, bespoke Eye of the Storm table (£9,400) launched at Clerkenwell Design Week in May.
“Concrete has limitless design possibilities and speaks about perennial things with a contemporary touch,” says French designer Matali Crasset. As creative director for Concrete by LCDA, makers of bespoke concrete furniture, she has created an eye‑catching lamp (£924) inspired by the wartime “listening ears” along the Kent coastline. A slender table made from fibre-reinforced UHPC (from £3,483) is another Crasset design. “The shape is deliberately simple, so that the material’s sensitive aspects can be revealed,” she says.
“I like working with concrete because it’s very tactile and has a beautiful, sophisticated surface finish,” says London-based designer Benjamin Hubert. “It’s also very familiar. People understand it, so it’s interesting to put it into a different context.” Hubert’s smooth-surfaced Heavy light (wall, £220; pendant, from £220; desk, £350) does that supremely well. “We cast it very thin – just 4mm – to create a softer, almost ceramic appearance to challenge perceptions about the material,” he says. Concrete’s expressive potential is also explored in the crumpled-looking Like Paper lights (from €260) by Cologne-based design producer Dua, and in Foscarini’s elegant Aplomb light (pendants, £291 each; uplighter, £602), designed by Studio Lucidi & Pevere, while an industrial-chic style is championed by the hand-cast, ball-like Trabant pendant lights (from £438) handmade by Joachim Manz for Tecnolumen.
“Bringing a raw, rough material into the home and turning it into a luxury product seems very intriguing to me,” says London-based EK Design’s Katharina Eisenkoeck. “Concrete has a very grounding, calming quality and I wanted to look afresh at the material.” Her portable, limited-edition lamps (Icon, from £528; Nomadic, from £980) have a sculptural stability provided by fibre-reinforced-concrete bases. She also experiments by mixing various materials with concrete, using shredded leather or wool, Styrofoam or cork to give diverse textures and colours to a series of bowls (from £60). Meanwhile, an articulated “skin” – a fluid, tactile surface used for seating, flooring or wall decoration – is made by stitching tessellated concrete and Jesmonite tiles onto canvas (price on request). “People touch it and can’t believe it is concrete,” says its creator, Eleri Stacpoole.
Equally innovative is the lightweight, yet extremely strong, fibre-reinforced concrete developed for 3D printing by Emerging Objects, a design and research company founded by California-based studio Rael San Fratello. “As architects, we are interested in revolutionising concrete by developing a way of using it in 3D printers, which we believe has the potential to become a major manufacturing method for the 21st century,” says co-founder and vice president Virginia San Fratello. Initial designs include Bevel, a latticework fruit/bread bowl ($89), Rocker vase ($350) and Haeckel bowl ($89). And, at 11ft long, the biomorphic, tessellated Seat Slug bench ($25,000) is one of the world’s largest 3D-printed concrete objects created to date.
New ways of casting and sculpting concrete are also being explored. “I thought it was interesting to apply this industrial, hardcore material to elegant, domestically scaled sculptures, purposefully retaining evidence of the fabrication method,” says British artist/designer Kathy Dalwood. Her rough concrete recasts of vintage porcelain figurines (from £190), bought at junk shops, bubble with personality, while the flattened, trompe-l’oeil forms of her concrete urn sculptures (£480) are inspired by classical stone urns. Modernist architectural details enliven Dalwood’s concrete planters (prices on request), and baroque motifs – swags, ribbons, grapes, leaves – decorate her concrete tiles (prices on request).
Collaborating with Di Overton of Ghost Furniture, Dalwood hand-casts concrete tassels made into tiebacks (£195 each) by embellishing them with real silk cords. They whimsically decorate a contemporary screen (£800), while vintage picture frames displaying single concrete tassels (from £250) present them as artworks. Elsewhere, James Russell and Hannah Plumb, the design duo behind JamesPlumb, give broken and discarded pieces of 19th-century furniture a new lease of life by carefully setting cast-concrete seats into their ornate frames (chairs, from £4,600 for a pair; sofas, from £5,800). “Using concrete allows us to make moulds that precisely fit the furniture’s negative spaces,” says Russell. “Its physicality contrasts with and accentuates the fragility of the frames, preserving their character and authenticity while adding a new, contemporary element and creating a feeling of permanence.”
Whether reworked or used in revolutionary new ways, the future for this ancient material looks remarkably solid.