In praise of a remarkable material.
Cork. Not perhaps the first material that comes to mind when setting about designing a piece of furniture, clothing, or work of art; nor, for that matter, going shopping for any such thing. But, in fact, it is a substance that has been around for rather a long time, featuring in various functional items for use on land and sea. A great treat is that it is readily available and thoroughly fulfils all concerns regarding sustainability and ecological impact. Over the past few years, both students and well-established creatives have dabbled in devising items made entirely of cork, with many an impressive result.
Expo 2000 in Hannover was perhaps the first-time-ever the world saw a building made of cork, and, 10 years later in Shanghai, visitors were seen smelling, scratching, and cutting souvenir bits of cork off of the Portuguese pavilion. No wonder we’re curious, since most of us only know this raw material as being the part we nonchalantly throwaway when opening a bottle of wine. Cork might be widely unknown and somewhat neglected, but it is actually used in many applications, from fishing floats to badminton shuttlecocks to floor tiles and thermal insulation material. And now that this 100% natural, sustainable, ecological product is increasingly winning the hearts of designers, artists and architects, it’s also finally appearing in applications more valuable than that of bottle stoppers, such as furniture, urban art, and clothing.
“I like everything about the material, primarily its appearance and touch, but also that, in block form, it is already a waste product”, says English designer Jasper Morrison, who created small tables in cork for Vitra some years ago, and later a chair, and, more recently, in collaboration with Camper, a pair of cork shoes, followed by cork wall tiles for the Metamorphosis exhibition during EXPERIMENTADESIGN 2013 in Lisbon at the end of the year. That exhibition co-organised by Amorim, Portugal’s leading cork producer, showed creations by 10 international designers and architects. Jasper Morrison was involved in Experimenta, as well as Herzog & de Meuron (who created the 2012 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion’s cork interior, along with Ai Weiwei), Álvaro Siza (designer of the Portuguese Pavilion for Expo 2000 with Eduardo Souto de Moura, which had a façade of cork blocks), Alejandro Aravena, the late James Irvine, and Naoto Fukasawa, all of who presented works made of cork that were off the beaten track and innovative. In addition, Pritzker Prize-winning Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura, who for the exhibit developed a cork handrail and door handles, embraces the substance with great enthusiasm. “Cork is one of the most pleasant materials to touch! Even though it’s quite expensive compared to other less sustainable materials made from petroleum, I like it a lot.”
For these designers and architects it is more than a mere aesthetic choice. Cork also happens to be a 100% natural, sustainable, environmentally friendly, reusable, biodegradable product. To start with: no trees are killed or harmed to produce cork – unlike for wood, harvesting does not involve any felling. The bark of the cork oaks is gently stripped away every nine years in mid summer, and then meticulously harvested by skilled workers using locally manufactured hand axes. Pealing off the bark doesn’t destroy the tree, which continues to live and grow for up to about 250 years. Also, the subsequent manufacturing process involves little waste and low energy usage. In addition to being a renewable resource, cork is recyclable, non-toxic, and durable, making it a very good cradle-to-cradle material. As Jasper Morrison says: “At Amorim, even the dust coming off the cork during the various processes is collected and reused!” During its life, cork retains an elevated portion of CO2, and cork oak forests are also very valuable to nature: a variety of plant and animal life survives there, including various endangered species like the Iberian Lynx and rare birds, along with many forms of fungi, ferns, and other plants. And, even better, cork is versatile, which gives designers, architects, and artists lots of room to play.
However sound, sensible, and wise it may be to work with cork, that doesn’t mean creators automatically fancy it. So, the big cork producers (most of which are located in Portugal, the world leader in the field), are eager to convince designers and architects to explore their product, being aware that they make excellent ambassadors for a material that is a bit more expensive and still relatively unknown, which might otherwise put off the market. Even if a vast majority of their revenue does indeed come from the production of wine stoppers and insulation, companies like Amorim challenge designers, artists, and architects alike to work with cork. The result of the latter’s interest in the material is varied and often involves innovative techniques and designs – think of the cork office system by the Bouroullec brothers for Vitra, the Senta stool by Fernando Brizio, POMM's iPad case, or Cédric Etienne’s Corkinho cradle-to-cradle bricks as a room divider.
Another recent example is the work of young Portuguese fashion designer Mónica Gonçalves, who during her graduation project invented a cork thread with which to knit clothing and accessories (she has just patented it). "I wanted to create a comfortable hand-knitted couture clothing line using the top quality cork that is used for champagne bottles. So I developed a cork thread that resembles wool thread, with the same suppleness and comfort. I invested quite some research in it, involving a bit of engineering, in order to make the cork thread resistant and elastic and still keep it 100% natural. The result is a natural material that keeps you warm in winter and cool in summer. Judging by the feedback from my customers, it seems this cork collection answers a need for clothing that is made from natural material, with no animals or synthetic substances involved: it's part of a lifestyle for people who choose to wear ‘clean’ clothes. Also, the fact that the cork oak doesn’t exist in other parts of the world at the moment adds to the appeal of cork clothing.”
If cork clothes might not be an obvious use, what of the captivating cork portraits VHILS launched recently? The Portuguese urban artist known for his images in a variety of mediums – from stencil painting and wall carving, to pyrotechnic explosions, to 3D modelling – has now created a big, complex piece in a material which is very new to him: cork. The result is Contraste, which differs depending on which way you look at it, thanks to the contrasting interplay of light and shadow. “It highlights the ability of humans to create, without impacting the environment”, VHILS enthuses.
Thus, next time we open a bottle of wine, let’s take a closer look at the cork stopper, as it would seem to evoke a whole universe of promising, innovative possibilities for a more inventive, ecological, and creative future. ‹