Super natural

Versatile and the ultimate sustainable material, cork is being reconsidered by designers – and the results are eminently desirable

Daniel Michalik’s Cortica chaise longue
Daniel Michalik’s Cortica chaise longue | Image: Daniel Michalik

The former CEO of Skitsch, Renato Preti, is in London talking about his new furniture venture, Discipline. It is a big one: 40 launch designs that débuted at April’s Milan Furniture Fair. They are simple, beautiful pieces of furniture, lighting and accessories by the cream of young international talent, from Max Lamb to Pauline Deltour via Luca Nichetto and Lars Beller Fjetland. And they are all made using natural and sustainable materials including leather, bamboo, glass and cork. Yes, really, cork – the material of 1970s- and 1980s-themed nightmares that for many years has been the persona non grata of the interiors world.

In the Discipline collection, however, cork dispels any retro associations – good or bad – by appearing as soft seating on top of a collection of ash-wood stools and benches by Lars Beller Fjetland (from £150), and also as quasi-textile upholstery on armchairs by Ichiro Iwasaki (from £527) and the French designer Philippe Nigro (price on application). According to Preti, it’s a highly respectable finish to use again in modern interiors. “Cork is a fantastic material – and although it’s nothing new, we’re rediscovering it because we’re rediscovering common sense. It’s relatively low cost, it’s waterproof, and you use everything up when you use cork – the offcuts can be recycled as components of other products, and in future we’re planning to mould them directly into new shapes.”

If Preti – a significant player in the Italian design market – is using cork in such a major way, it’s worth noting. Nor is he alone in doing so. There’s a beautiful new LED light called the PA Floor Lamp by the Danish designer Søren Rose Kjær for De La Espada, which features a cork lampshade atop a steel frame (£1,458). And Corque Design, a Lisbon-based brand launched in 2009, has an entire collection of cork furniture and accessories. The brand recently issued new designs, including Wallcork, a multicoloured cork wall-covering on a textile backing, by Sofia Dias (€295.20 per roll); Puf Fup, a cute string of cork balls that works as a pouffe or room decoration (from €2,706); and Moorish Mosaic, a print-top dining table (from €984).

From left to right: The PA Floor Lamp by Søren Rose Studio for De La Espada. Wallcork by Sofia Dias for Corque Design. The Boet stool by Note Design Studio
From left to right: The PA Floor Lamp by Søren Rose Studio for De La Espada. Wallcork by Sofia Dias for Corque Design. The Boet stool by Note Design Studio | Image: Corque Design. Mathias Nero. Soren Rose Studio/De La Espada

Note Design Studio has just found a commercial producer for its Boet stool, which is inspired by a bird’s nest and features curvaceous cork padding on the seat (from €390). And the brand has also just issued a colourful Tembo stool (€850 to €950) for the new furniture design outfit La Chance, formed by Jean-Baptiste Souletie and Louise Breguet. For Souletie, cork is not only a material worth looking at again, but is also worthy of a new luxury tag. “Luxury today is when a product doesn’t necessarily follow the rational,” he says. “Cork adds a distinctive look to interiors. At its finest it’s very refined. Of course there are a few imperfections, but that’s also part of luxury – today it’s about getting away from standardisation and creating products that bear the mark of their creator. That aside, the finish is so pleasing; when you touch it you realise just what a tactile material it is. And that to us is luxury too.”

Cork flooring has also made appearances in the work of award-winning architects. This year’s Serpentine Gallery Pavilion by Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei features a dark-hued, cork-covered interior, while Jordi Bonet, who oversees the restoration of Barcelona’s La Sagrada Família, used cork on the floor of the crypt as it is natural material – Gaudí’s preference – with excellent acoustic and thermal insulating properties. But there is still work to be done to dispel negative associations with the material; Bonet admitted in a recent interview that not all feel the same way he does about cork, including several of his colleagues.

Kristoffer Fagerström of Note Design Studio is equally candid in admitting many have had their doubts about cork for a number of years. But he hopes his work with Note and La Chance will help to promote the material. “Most producers and manufacturers are quite nervous about using it,” he says. “Buyers want to buy tried and tested materials; they want to know the material is going to last 10 years. And so it’s taken quite a while for us to find a producer for our stools, and La Chance could be seen to be taking a chance with the Tembo stool.” Fagerström is now happy with his suppliers. And La Chance is utilising a small-scale producer in France, who Souletie says is “very involved in finding new ways to use cork – or ways that people have forgotten about for the last 40 years”.

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Carlos de Jesus, director of marketing and communications for the Portuguese brand Amorim, the world’s largest cork product supplier, says that what has evolved over the last couple of decades is the quality of production. “Cork changed where it needed to change,” he explains. “The ability to incorporate technical innovation into a sustainable product is the key reason for cork’s success. In the last four years, we have submitted 18 patents for different product applications, and over the last 10 years we have spent €53m on research and development to improve technical performance and quality.”

In fact, the Portuguese have put a lot of effort into marketing cork as a design tool in recent years. Amorim launched the design project Materia last year to showcase its potential. Curated by Guta Moura Guedes, of Portuguese agency Experimentadesign, the project includes work from designers and architects such as Inga Sempé, Nendo and Filipe Alarcão. The first collection is now for sale (from €50 to €960), while the second selection of designs will be unveiled later in the year. “There’s no specific briefing, just total freedom,” says Moura Guedes. “It could be an object, an installation, a wall, a structure, a system. It’s about ideas.”

This marketing push was largely spurred by concerns over cork’s future a decade ago. There were even fears the wine industry would cease using cork altogether in favour of plastic or metal bottle stoppers. To some extent, the latter fear has been put to bed in the last two years. Amorim cites cork exports growth of 10 and 8.3 per cent in 2010 and 2011 respectively, and De Jesus says the wine industry has had a volte-face regarding cork. “It’s not a coincidence all the greatest wines produced in history carry natural corks,” he says.

From left to right: Gelo ice bucket, by Filipe Alarcão for Materia. Par salt and pepper shakers, by Nendo for Materia
From left to right: Gelo ice bucket, by Filipe Alarcão for Materia. Par salt and pepper shakers, by Nendo for Materia | Image: Materia; cork by Anorim (2)

Alongside bottle stoppers, the promotion of other cork products has also worked in the industry’s favour. Amorim’s second largest market is now flooring and interiors, which come in super-modern finishes and colours; the Amorim-owned company Wicanders, for example, produces 77 colours and textures to choose from.

Amorim, The Portuguese Cork Association (APCOR) and government departments have also put significant funds into relaying the message that cork is a truly eco-friendly material, suitable for all things from flotation devices to engineering systems  and space-shuttle fuel-tank coating, as well as consumer design. And it is the environmental benefits, more than anything, that have made cork such a hit with young designers.

“It is one of the most environmentally friendly materials on Earth,” says New York-based designer Daniel Michalik. “The source renews every nine years, and the trees protect countless species’ habitats. It’s also almost endlessly recyclable, and there are cultural and craft-based histories connected to its production.” Michalik’s furniture designs include a lounger that is formed from a single length of reclaimed cork ($4,500), which makes use of the material’s natural flexibility, as well as a new series of chairs known as 3/1, made using great hunks of cork as a seat, held in place with painted wooden backs and legs ($1,700).

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Michalik believes that cork can also look very modern. “Cork’s softness and warmth and natural quality speak to our cultural leaning towards materials that we find comforting,” he says. “The era of shiny chrome and plastic is on the wane, being eclipsed by inclinations towards ‘authenticity’. Cork is not polished, coated or plated – what you see is what you get. This sensibility is very 21st century.”

Søren Rose Kjær, creator of the De La Espada lamp, also cites the technical aspects of cork that make it a must-reconsider material for new-wave designers and home interiors. “It has impressive qualities that are difficult to find in other natural materials,” he says. “Cork is very light in weight and low in density; it’s resistant to moisture penetration; it can be compressed to half its dimension with no loss of its flexibility; and at the same time it can be compressed in its diameter without expanding its length. Cork retains its properties at both high and low extremes of temperature and can last many years without deterioration. I’ve always had a sweet spot for cork.”

With cork’s growing usage as a quality design material, the rest of us may yet develop one too.

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