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Traditionally associated with car parks and tower blocks, concrete is increasingly finding its way into our homes. Today’s furniture makers are using the industrial material to make a wide range of objects, from dining chairs and tables to candelabras and even pillows.
To do so, designers often replace the gravel and sand used in conventional concrete with high-tech materials, such as fibreglass or steel-reinforcing micro fibres.
“In a lot of design, concrete is still used in a blocky way. But it is a fluid material from which we can now make any sort of three-dimensional shape,” says Isaac Friedman-Heiman, who co-founded Souda, a New York City-based design studio, less than a year ago with fellow graduates from the Parsons school of design. Souda’s Kreten collection was created using a manufacturing process traditionally employed to integrate structural columns beneath bridges.
“It is an existing architectural technique but based on the fabric we are casting it in, and our own particular mix, it’s different from anything else other people are doing,” says Friedman-Heiman.
As fibre-reinforced concrete is poured into a mould, the flat pattern swells to create a 3D form. Each pattern must be tested because slight variations may cause the branching shapes to buckle. But when done correctly, the result is a one-of-a-kind piece that requires little finishing after the fabric is peeled away.
The Kreten collection includes a side table and candelabra but, says Friedman-Heiman, the technique could also lend itself to producing other small pieces.
In contrast to how Modernist architects used concrete in the mid-20th century to build large external structures, today’s designers are focusing on how it can be crafted into furniture. They are experimenting with the shape of fabric forms that are difficult to replicate on a larger scale and the results demonstrate the material’s versatility.
When Denmark-based designer Christian Flindt began working on his Concrete Gable table, which he presented earlier this year at the Salone Internazionale del Mobile, Milan’s annual furniture fair, he realised that fibre-reinforced concrete allowed him to rethink traditional Danish woodworking techniques. With the concrete to support it, the wood could become much thinner in the design.
Architects eager to extend their work into home interiors are also finding new ways to experiment with concrete. Tina Rugelj, an architect based in Slovenia, began researching concrete furniture-making techniques several years ago. She presented her first collection of fibre-reinforced concrete outdoor furniture in Milan last year, and expanded that work with her Spaces of Freedom exhibition at this year’s fair.
For anyone who has seen concrete at a construction site – thick slabs with stems of steel used as reinforcement – the collection’s silhouettes seem impossibly slender. But therein lies the allure of fibre reinforcement, which allows concrete to take precise patterns and forms, transforming a cold building material into a thin, elegant structure with incredible strength.
“Before hardening, fibre-cement is a highly mouldable material. Though once it hardens it is highly stable and weather-resistant,” says Rugelj. “While designing this collection, I wanted to use all of the potential of the material: its extreme thinness (the thickness of my product varies between 10mm and 16mm); lightness (from 9kg to 56kg); the way it can bend; and its weather resistance, both to cold and to heat.”
In partnership with Slovenian company Esal, a manufacturer of fibre-cement roofing, Rugelj developed a process to make tables, seating, a modular wall, and even a doghouse. While the factory’s large concrete panels are still wet and pliable, water jets cut the pattern for each piece of furniture from a single sheet, which is then transferred to a mould. After 24 hours, the mould is removed and the piece dries for three weeks before it is sanded and finished.
“My wish is to obtain the look of the raw concrete where tiny imperfections are left visible, and the material has a velvet and warm touch,” says Rugelj. “It ages with time and gains a noble patina, as all visible concrete.”
The process of making furniture with concrete does have its limitations. Merchants are concerned about shipping and packaging costs, as well as whether pieces are able to fit on to standard palettes. Small furnishings, lamps and bathroom elements are becoming more popular but the complex shapes of larger items, such as kitchen designs and substantial pieces of furniture, have proved difficult to mass-produce.
Still, those who have worked with fibre-reinforced concrete for decades are eager to help designers test the potential of the material. In 2010, British architect Sir Norman Foster worked with Il Cantiere, an Italian high-end concrete-casting specialist, to manufacture the Arc table for Molteni & C using Lafarge’s proprietary Ductal fibre-reinforced concrete. US company Taktl has developed its own formula, producing a range of outdoor furnishings under the name Situ, in addition to custom panels for interiors and facades.
“There’s a shift in concrete technology now, away from [how we have] traditionally used the material,” says Mark Rogero, who, in 1991, founded concrete design and fabrication studio Concreteworks. “We’ve eliminated steel from the technical requirements. This old material that’s been around forever is moving into something very sophisticated in terms of how it is fabricated and how it performs.”
The company recently completed a concrete screen in a California home made by Michelle Wempe of Zumaooh design practice. The piece is inspired by the work of Erwin Hauer, who in the 1950s began designing architectural elements (typically made with gypsum) with repeating geometries that astonished even the most software-savvy designers.
Concreteworks used 3D printing to manufacture silicon moulds for the screen’s repeating component, which is based on an African symbol for peace. These are threaded on steel rods mounted between ceiling and floor. Though residential concrete work has always tended toward subtlety and minimalism, new techniques made possible by digital design software coupled with the material’s timelessness are attractive to architects.
“We’re using age-old, substantial materials. Architects get that,” says Rogero. Concreteworks is also making its own concrete furniture, including a new line of outdoor tables and landscape elements designed to look like large rocks.
Designers agree that trial and error is a big part of developing concrete furnishings for the home. But with new design tools and experienced fabricators willing to collaborate, they are working with an exciting bag of tricks, one that may help concrete find yet untold potential in the home.