For most people, concrete conjures visions of pavements and Le Corbusier’s Brutalist buildings: dark, heavy and forbidding. But now its image is changing. In recent years, concrete has been embraced by designers, who have buffed its reputation by taking this industrial material and transforming it into a substance fit for furniture and decorative objects.
Its first appeal is price. For Shaun Kasperbauer, one of the founders of Souda, a design group created by three graduates of the Parsons School of Design in New York, the cheapness of concrete makes it ideal for experimentation. Designs, he says, can be redone again and again until they’re just right, which is useful when you’re young and penniless. “It’s the type of material you can, without many tools, jump into. You cast it one day, and the next day it’s dry.” Souda’s Kreten Candelabra (above) is a case in point. A smoothly curvaceous piece in the shape of coral, it was cast in a mould made of spandex and took about six months to perfect.
Many of the designers working with concrete are trying to subvert our expectations of its look and feel. This is what led the Dalmia Bharat Group, one of India’s largest concrete producers, to reimagine their product as “functional art”. They commissioned a team of designers to create a range of furniture and accessories. One of them was Iti Tyagi, an Indian designer, whose contributions to the collection include “Audrey” (above), a table covered with what looks like a concrete table cloth, evoking the tactile qualities of her homeland’s rich fabrics. She was drawn to the material’s sculptural potential. She likens it to clay: “it’s a very flexible material...you can add, you can subtract.”
Fernando Mastrangelo, a Brooklyn artist and furniture designer who won an award at last year’s NYCxDESIGN, a design fair in New York, also plays with our notions of concrete’s roughness and heaviness. The tables in his Ghost collection (above) are cast in layers of delicately coloured cement, giving their surfaces a soft, cloud-like quality, and then sanded until impossibly smooth. For his Fade sidetables, he did the same thing but added dyes in pastel shades, turning them into subtle columns of colour.
Crump & Kwash, a Baltimore design duo who used to work for a company which made precast concrete for the building business, do something similar. In their customisable Hanks Nightstand (above), the concrete surface can come in a variety of textures from craggy to porous, pock-marked to sleek. “Usually when clients get up close and touch it, they’re like, ‘This is concrete?’ ” says Justin Kwash. “They’re used to seeing that classic grey driveway look.”