Few materials evoke high-end living as simply and effectively as marble. It has been used for some of the world’s most notable structures, from the Pantheon in Rome and the Taj Mahal in Agra to more contemporary buildings, such as London’s Marble Arch and the Peace Monument in Washington DC. Favoured by artists since ancient times, it was in full flower during the Renaissance: Michelangelo’s “David” is just one of the marble sculptures that helped shape the western concept of aesthetics. This artistic and historical heritage has lent the material a considerable degree of cultural power, and it has become a global symbol of refined taste and sophistication.
In recent times, however, marble has suffered an image problem. Owing to its association with ostentation, decoration and excess, it dropped off the radar in contemporary design for the best part of two decades. Yet, recent technological developments, the return to fashion of a more upmarket style, and the material’s powerful natural qualities are all helping to endear the material to a new generation of designers.
This February, fashion house Saint Laurent opened a new store in London with a design inspired by the French modernist movement, with black marble dado rails and white marble floors and fitting rooms. Also this year, the CVDB Arquitectos-designed Tapestry Museum opened in Arraiolos, Portugal, with white marble floors and walls complementing building’s 12th-century vaulted ceilings.
Furniture designers, too, are exploring marble’s potential. At this year’s Salone del Mobile in Milan, the material was in evidence across the show. Italian brand Marsotto Edizioni showed pieces in Carrara marble designed by Konstantin Grcic, Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrison, among others; while B&B Italia launched Barber Osgerby-designed marble tables, and even northern European brands such as Gubi featured marble in their new collections. Emerging designers, including Bethan Gray, Lee Broom and Scholten & Baijings, also presented new work in marble.
British furniture designer Terence Woodgate launches his first own-brand lighting collection in July this year. Called Solid, it features LED pendants and downlights made from natural materials including solid Carrara and Nero Marquina marble. “I’m a modernist, leaning towards the minimalist, and marble really lends itself to modernity. It works well with simple shapes. You don’t need to add decoration, you can let the material speak for itself. It has a beautiful texture,” says Woodgate.
Designer Lee Broom launched a crystal wineglass and a champagne coupe, both with marble bases, in Milan, as part of his On the Rock collection. He is also planning a lighting and furniture range that will feature marble. Broom agrees with Woodgate that marble is well suited to a contemporary aesthetic. “Marble is a beautiful material, and to keep it feeling contemporary you just need to pare back the design as much as possible and keep forms simple and organic,” he says.
Marble is quarried in many countries around the world, but it is Italian marble, however, and in particular the white grey stone from Carrara, that is the most sought after. According to industry body Internazionale Marmi e Macchine Carrara, last year saw a significant increase in demand for the product, with exports the highest in almost 15 years, increasing by 4.4 per cent in quantity and 10.6 per cent in value (to €901.6m) from 2012.
Carrara marble has been prized since classical times due to its softness, which makes it easy to carve, its homogeneity in colour, its relative resistance to shattering, and its luminosity.
“Carrara marble is such a fantastic material to work with. It has a lovely translucency that adds real warmth to the design and softens the geometry of the form. It’s almost like skin: light bounces off it but it also absorbs light,” says Woodgate.
Dutch group Scholten & Baijings launched a limited edition series of Carrara marble tables earlier this year. Its Solid Pattern tables, available at Spazio Rossana Orlandi, feature engraved patterns in spare, modern geometric designs that contrast with the natural texture of the marble.
“We were very impressed by the natural power of the material, and we had to think hard about how we would use it,” says Stefan Scholten, co-founder of Scholten & Baijings. “The colour is so beautiful that there is nothing to add in that way. Instead, we added a geometric pattern to give the design a contemporary feel.”
The group worked with Italian marble producer Luce di Carrara, which is based near Florence. “The quarry’s location was a big influence on our work. We wanted to create 3D shapes that referenced the area’s sculptural past but also to create pieces that use the technology that’s now available. The lines in the design are very sharp – it would be impossible to do them by hand,” says Scholten.
Technology is playing an important role in the contemporary resurgence of the material. “Marble producers recognised the need to embrace change about five years ago and began investing in high-end cutting technology,” says Scholten. “We are starting to see the first outputs of that now.”
Italian marble company Robot City is just one example. The group commissioned four projects for Milan’s Ventura Lambrate, including an all-marble version of designer Alessandro Mendini’s 1978 Proust chair, priced at €60,000. Each piece was carved from a single block of marble weighing more than 38 tonnes, using advanced technology, including three-dimensional band saws, five-axis CNC-controlled milling machines, water-jet cutting and a four-metre-high robot cutter.
“All these new tools give us a wider range of opportunities and mean designers can now create three-dimensional, organic shapes with marble,” says Scholten.
Designer Bethan Gray has been working with marble for a number of years. This year she showed a collection of tableware in Milan featuring black and white marble in a herringbone pattern, a geometric design inspired by churches in Italy and Switzerland. Gray agrees with Scholten on the importance of technological developments. “New technology has allowed me to recreate techniques that previously would have taken a craftsman months, if not years, to do by hand,” she says.
As Broom points out, technology also offers the option to create larger production runs in marble. “Today’s technology means you can now create seamless pieces with machines, which enables us to create a manufactured range. But every single piece will still be different. It is one of the aspects of marble that I really love: it is always unique. Even if you are mass-producing designs, each piece has a different texture and surface pattern,” he says.
Shira Keret is an Israeli designer, whose Monolith range is a collection of serving plates and vessels in Carrara marble, priced from £500. With Monolith, Keret examines the impact of water on rock. She creates drawings of simple shapes such as cylinders and rectangles, then uses a water-jet cutter on a block of marble. Because of the thickness of the stone, the cutter begins to weaken before the design is fully realised and the final results are organic and indefinable. “I never know what a piece is going to look like until it is finished,” she says.
Although technology plays a large part in her designs, Keret says it is the material’s cultural qualities that are its biggest appeal.
“Marble has aesthetic depth and beautiful natural texture, but it has cultural depth, too,” she says. “I feel connected with a long line of people who have worked with marble for thousands of years, from sculptors to designers and architects. It’s a very sustainable material, it lasts for years and it imparts nobility and heritage to any object you create.”