Put a cork in it
You might be forgiven for thinking that cork has little to offer unless used to plug a bottle of red. Indeed, the last time cork had a place in the sun was in the 1970s, and even then it was only as wedge shoe heels.
But cork is now gaining a reputation as a wonder material among pioneering designers. Much of its appeal lies in its green credentials. The sustainability of cork production and the easy recycling of cork products make it an attractive material in these environmentally conscious times.
Recycling features prominently in the designs of London-based Joe Pipal, who gathers old wine corks from restaurants and uses them to create bedside shelves. He adds laminated European oak and tops it with a natural cork block for a rustic effect.
'Cork is beautiful in its natural state,' says Pipal, who also works with reclaimed African wenge and English oak veneer. 'It looks like a piece of burled wood and it's warm, soft and naturally waterproof.'
The London Guildhall University-trained craftsman has a workshop covered with pictures of Alvar Aalto and Le Corbusier, and when you look at Pipal's eloquent shapes you can see just how heavily he has been inspired by European modernism. His cork cabinet has a simplicity absent in so many of today's show-off designs, and this restraint is emphasised by his choice of material.
Another fan of cork's light look and touch is noted Parisian designer Martin Szekely, who has worked with Heineken and Dom Perignon. He has found the perfect expression for his minimalism in cork, and he responds especially to its utilitarian quality.
'My experience of working in industrial design is directed at the broadest possible public,' he says. Not only is cork easily recognisable, but it also blends in well with most rooms and existing interior schemes.
'My aim is to achieve a [visual] economy,' continues Szekely, whose work is displayed in New York's Museum of Modern Art. There's no denying this economy when you take a look at Simple Boxes, which evokes the purity of traditional craft. Although these boxes look simple, the technique behind creating them is anything but - with Szekely using waxed, calibrated panels made up of compressed cork particles. Heroic Shelves shares a similar briskness and economy of form that, if fashioned out of, say, aluminium, would look cold and unfriendly.
Daniel Michalik has also been won over by the material's earthiness and accessibility. The Brooklyn-based designer says: 'Cork is welcoming and soft, and goes against much of the economic angst many are feeling.'
Although it is a durable and versatile material, cork's aesthetic credentials are still questionable. Michalik, however, has used the material to striking effect with his cork children's chairs.
'Cast cork produces a dense and unusual texture,' he says. 'It is highly attractive and intriguing to the eyes and hands of young children.' But even if you're not small you can still recline or - in the case of Michalik's chaise longue - float on the material.
Cork may seem like an unlikely base for a product designed for comfort, but, Michalik says: 'When handled correctly, the natural flexibility of cork allows it to form fantastic, complex shapes no other material can match.'
Recalling cork boats, Michalik adds: 'The balanced form, along with the pliability, allows the user of this lounger to rock gently from side to side or on her back with a great degree of stability. The result is a sensation of floating, weightlessness and total support.'
Michalik - and most other designers working with the material - point to cork's environmental credentials, which are strengthened further when you learn that cork oak forests (found in Portugal and Algeria) also prevent desertification. And alongside cork's environmental virtues the American self-taught craftsman Jacob Marks, who founded Skram Furniture, notes that the material 'allows for a unique fusion of hard and soft geometries'.
His work is rooted in the 'inextricability of good design and fine workmanship'. And this ethos has paid off in the form of his Cork Drop 16 stools. They are suitable for indoors and out, and the black cork detail is a welcome touch that livens up the sometimes dusty look of all-over cork, while the shape challenges the standard roundness of the typical stool.
Now that designers are recognising the inherent usefulness of the material, they are not shying away from making it the star attraction. This is completely at odds with the wine industry, which has turned away from it. When you consider that cork is 'renewable, recyclable, biodegradable and non-toxic', says Michalik, it seems strange to abandon such a material in our eco-conscious times. Nevertheless, the wine industry's loss is shaping out to be the design world's gain. And if you still have any reservations about it being left to stack-heeled shoes, just sit down on it and let yourself float away.