feature :: concrete; the quintessential hard stuff
Katie | December 19, 2014
All this month I’m sharing some of my favourite posts for 2014 – you can have too much concrete…
I work as a freelance design writer as well as writing this blog and in that work, I really enjoy writing feature articles; they allow a more in-depth look at a subject than is possible on a blog. So I’ve decided to challenge the assumption that long-form content doesn’t work online and launch a new column where I can share this sort of writing. Let me know what you think. The first one is 800 words on the subject of concrete(!), a version of which first appeared on the D&AD website…
“The concrete block?” Frank Lloyd Wright once wrote, “The cheapest (and ugliest) thing in the building world.” Leonard Koren refers to people describing concrete as “hostile,” “ugly,” and even “aggressive,” and using phrases like “unrelenting stretches of coarse greyness” and “depressing soullessness.” For most people, concrete will forever be associated with failed and rain-stained post-war social housing experiments.
But we’ve been using it since ancient Egyptian times. Today, concrete is the most widely used material in the world. We produce 7.5billion m3 annually – that’s enough for every person on the face of the planet to have their very own cubic metre every year!
In 2012 Phaidon published a book simply called “Concrete”. The front cover features nothing but the Phaidon logo, the word “Concrete” and a full bleed close-up image of Beton Brut raw concrete with its characteristic wood grain imprints left by the moulds used in its construction. Editor William Hill concludes his introduction with the following words in defence of concrete: “Without concrete our built environment and the history of architecture would be woefully bereft. It is time to reconsider concrete and its contribution to architecture.”
There has certainly been a niche, or perhaps even cult, appreciation for concrete for some time; as anyone who’s ever encountered the 20th Century Society, done the Barbican Centre’s Architectural tour, or spent too long talking to an architect will know. But iconic concrete buildings like the National Film Theatre on London’s Southbank are still divisive at best, with calls to grant them listed status shouted down by those who would rather see them demolished.
But is change in the air? Are the masses about to come around to the appeal of what Leonard Koren calls “the quintessential hard stuff”?  A stroll around Design Week in Milan and more recently, Clerkenwell Design Week in London, would certainly imply the rumblings of a revolution.
There’s nothing new about contrasting shiny new interior products against an industrial backdrop and Juice and parts of Ventura Lambrate both made use of poured concrete floors and Beton Brut walls to provide a juxtaposing environment for the work on show.
But what was interesting at both festivals was the amount of concrete used in the products themselves, especially when it was finding its way into furniture and accessories.
New designers often provide a glimpse into the future. Utopia Architecture and Design presented elegant stools with entwined wooden legs and recycled concrete seats. Their other products include lighting, accessories and shelving, all made from the same combination of wood and concrete.
Conversely Eduard Petkun launched Inconcrete, a chair that looks like it’s ‘upholstered’ with concrete; “its surface imitates the cold and rough structures of this material,” he says, but the seat and back are in fact covered with soft and flexible Polyurethane foam, showing, if nothing else, a desire to challenge preconceptions.
The Concrete Gable Table is a more serious investigation into concrete’s properties as a material. Designer Christian Flindt’s intention was to “combine this rough and durable industrial material with ash wood, a classic wood type in Danish furniture production”, and in so doing, explore the interaction of the two. He says: “The two materials support, supplement and challenge each other’s properties. Due to the robust nature of concrete, the ash veneer can be made extra thin without breaking. The expression is both warm and cold in the interaction between two very different materials. Fibre concrete has a tight and raw expression, while the wood adds a soft note to the look of the table.” The table brings together industrial production methods and traditional Danish craft-based furniture making, and shows how concrete’s strengths can be celebrated without a compromise in ergonomics.
At Clerkenwell Design Week, both SAi Industries and Foreign Bear Studios were showing concrete furniture, the former a bedside table clad in super-thin concrete cladding, and the latter a great slab of concrete raised on yellow legs and proudly topped with glass.
Perhaps the most surprising use of concrete was in tabletop accessories, both by new and established designers. Philippe Malouin’s Concrete Tupperware – a range of concrete Tuppaware-moulded containers created for wallpaper* Handmade in Milan – was inspired by “London and its Brutalist architecture, concrete bollards and worn pavements.” The range uses aggregate concrete, which is sandblasted to reveal the irregular gravel within, giving it an uncompromisingly rough surface.
Meanwhile, Stefano Pugliese launched the Marchigue Concrete Vase collection. He said: “I wanted to be very formal and rigorous in the design process and concrete seemed the perfect material. Concrete is interesting because its value lies in the form it’s given – you can form a mould to obtain any shape you want.”
“As an architect, concrete brings to mind Modernist architecture, new cities, democratic solutions to critical housing problems, museums… But I think for many people concrete is associated with building blocks in badly planned city peripheries and the illegal housing that’s destroyed beautiful landscapes in Italy. I think it’s the architects and planners who are responsible for those failures, not the concrete.
However, I do think concrete is seeing a bit of a revival. I’m surprised, but maybe it’s because in the last few years, new types of concrete have become available that are very suitable for furniture or accessories. There is always a rush to work with a new material, but ultimately concrete is very easy to work with. It comes out of moulds… and it’s firm and it’s stable.”
Further reading for the especially geeky:
 Concrete by William Hall, Phaidon, 2012;  The concrete conundrum, Chemistry World, March 2003