Pop a cork: in praise of cork's versatility

Cork's long been associated with bottle stops and dull flooring. Not any more: it's the eco-friendly, design-friendly material designers can't get enough of for furniture, homewares and decorative accessories

By Kay Hill
Japser Morrison cork stools for Vitra

Cork is much in demand for accessories and furniture as well as flooring. Pictured above: Cork Family Model A side tables by Jasper Morrison for Vitra, £370 at Nest

For more info on cork, see www.100percentcork.orgwww.corkforest.orgwww.wwf.org.uk

Cork has had a funny old time of it. Cork floor tiles that hit the market in the '70s were prized for their worthiness and insulating properties, but they were never sexy. And cork has subsequently had that 'worthy but boring' tag around its neck. 

Not any more though. The cork industry has made huge efforts to reinvent itself, driven by necessity as demand among its traditional clients, ie wine producers, fell. Around 70 per cent of farmed cork was for centuries used in wine bottles. But over the past decade demand has fallen as wine makers opt for cheaper metal screw tops and plastic “corks”.

Faced with the dismal prospect of the wonderfully diverse European and North African eco-systems of the cork oak forests being abandoned and turned back into desert or scrubland, environmental campaigners have joined forces with cork producers to persude eco-conscious designers to see the potential of cork - both virgin cork and agglomerated cork, which is created from the offcuts of cork left after wine stoppers have been made, or in some cases from recycled wine stoppers themselves.

The result is an outpouring of beautiful contemporary designs for furniture and decorative accessories as well as flooring.

'Part of my long standing love for cork is its environmental properties. It’s harvested every nine years without the tree being cut down making it highly sustainable and renewable.' Daniel Schofield

Cork King and Queen stools/side tables from Italian brand Mogg, available at Go Modern. 2 x heights
Styish modern kitchen and serve ware from Corkway, www.corkway.com
The bark is stripped from the trees every 10 years, which means cork is a highly sustainable materia
Play YET! easy fit modular storage system from France's Smarin. It's made from wood and cork and you
A cork oak forest in Portugal is rich in bio-diversity. Picture: Apcor
Adjust-A-Bowl foldable bowl made from thin layer of cork attached to cotton, from £32 www.greentulip
Flooring maker Granorte specialises in cork flooring
Cork seat on a metal body...stools from designers Discipline.eu

Cork Facts

  • Cork is a bark, not a wood. Cork trees live for up to 250 years and are not harmed by bark stripping, which takes place once a decade, starting when the tree is around 25 years old.
  • The cork tree is a member of the oak family (Quercus suber), and as such produces beautiful large acorns that are a valuable source of food for the insects and animals that inhabit cork forests.
  • There are 2.7 million hectares of cork oak forests in PortugalSpainAlgeria, Morocco, Italy, Tunisia and France, employing more than 100,000 people in rural areas.
  • Cork forests are one of the most diverse environments in Europe, supporting up to 135 species of plant per square metre and sheltering endangered species including the Iberian Lynx, the Iberian Imperial Eagle and the Barbary Deer

Solid cork is a superb material to work with because it's relatively easy to cut and shape, while its unobtrusive colour and texture make it very adaptable in terms of using it with other materials, such as ceramic, wood, stone and glass.

It's perfect for small tables and designers are increasingly using it for side tables/stools - those multi functional pieces of furniture that are great to have around. Mogg is a recently launched Italian brand that offers King and Queen cork tables, which have been carved rather like chess pieces and can be used as stools too. Each comes in two heights, 63cm or 43cm, and they're priced at £500 or £390. You can order them at Go Modern.

A less expensive (£150) fun side table is the Giant Champagne cork table from Cheltenham-based XLCork. And for that relaxed wood and cork look, the Play Yet! modular storage system from French brand Smarin is very appealing and easy to put together. Buy it in blocks and it can grow over your walls as you need more storage space. 

Cork for storage

Thinly cut cork is ideal for shape-able bowls and baskets - The Holding Company has well-priced and very attractive cork baskets that suit modern or traditional interiors; while Green Tulip has some pretty, foldable cork bowls ideal for fruit or bread rolls.

 

US furniture designer Daniel Michalik uses a lot of cork in his work
Companions Low bedside table with cork basket by De La Espada
Cortica cork chaise by Daniel Michalik
Kortime cork clock by Discipline
Cork flooring has come a long way with many more design options
Cork Suber stools by Daniel Schofield
Stopper cork base lamp with glass dome top by Daniel Schofield

Cork flooring

Flooring has been one of the most obvious uses for cork, as its interesting texture gives a natural pattern, and its inbuilt springiness makes for a comfortable surface to walk on. Market leader is Portuguese company Granorte. Founded in 1972 to recycling the waste from the production of cork wine stoppers, it now makes a wide range of cork wall and floor tiles and engineered boards using cork. Some of its products make use of cork’s lovely natural patterns, but its engineered boards use digital printing technology to give a perfect imitation of regular timbers.

'Granorte floors are made from cork harvested from one of the most sustainable natural sources available to man,' says product manager Paulo Rocha. 'Using FSC certified fibreboard, the floors are made in a similar fashion to laminate floors, but with the advantages of a cork surface and an integrated cork underlay. Featuring 33 per cent pre-consumer recycled content, the floors make use of cork's natural cushion cells, acting as a natural sound and thermal insulator, as well as providing a comfortable surface.'

Wicanders is the high-end flooring brand owned by Amorim Group, Portugal’s leading cork producer. It offers a huge selection of cork flooring with natural sound and heat insulating properties, as well as aesthetic beauty. Its Corkcomfort range, for instance, comes in 71 shades ranging from basic natural cork through to striking metallic finishes, while Artcomfort has 41 cork floors that use digital imaging to give them the appearance of wood or stone. Wicanders is widely available in the UK including at John Lewis and Urbane Living.

Bespoke cork wallpaper..Calligraphy by Khatam for Omexco, £83 per m.
Buy a roll of cork for noticeboards, or cover your wall with it and paint it...£41.88 2m roll
Corque Design make great furniture from cork. corquedesign.com

Cork furniture

Natural cork is lightweight and flexible material, while agglomerated cork is a strong, wood-like product made from granules of waste cork and resins. Both have a beautiful natural grain that attracts craftspeople, who often combine it with natural wood to great effect.  

It’s no surprise that one of the more recently-launched furniture companies, Discipline has chosen to include cork in its collections. Founder Renato Preti says: 'Cork is a fantastic material – and although it’s nothing new, we’re rediscovering it because we’re rediscovering common sense. It’s relatively low cost, waterproof, and you use everything up when you use cork, as the offcuts can be recycled.'

British designer Jasper Morrison is also a fan; he's created both the Corks range for Moooi, simple cylinders of natural cork that can be used as seating or coffee tables, and Cork stools for Vitra which resemble large spools of thread. Both are available at Chaplins. And young UK designer Joe Pipal is also making waves with his elegant bespoke cork sideboards. 'Cork’s properties for insulating heat, waterproofing, elasticity etc make it a very dynamic natural material with many suitable applications within design and architecture,' he says.

Across Europe other big names in design are also embracing cork. Studioilse has created the Companions bedside table, with a cork bowl slung underneath fort your bits and bobs, available at De La Espada, while Italian marble company Kreoo has turned to cork to provide the perfect top to its pebble-like Pave seats.

In the US, furniture designer Daniel Michalik has also been experimenting: 'In recent years I've delved into the secrets of cork, an engaging and responsible material with vast implications for healthier perspectives on design, agriculture, tradition and manufacturing. Cork is a sustainable material, regenerating every nine years for harvest and the Portuguese regions of cork production hold centuries-old farming and manufacturing traditions that can teach us how objects can be made more responsibly.'

One of his most striking products is the Cortiça chaise, made from an intricately carved block of agglomerated recycled cork, its shape designed to allow gentle rocking.

Cork lighting and accessories 

The intricate patterns of cork have proved popular with lighting designers. Søren Rose Studio has launched its Park Avenue Floor Lamp with a smooth cork shade available from De La Espada while Corkway offers the Lugh lamp, an intricately formed pendant with waves of cork, and Coupules Volta, shaped pendants made from agglomerated cork. 

Designers have found lots of interesting ways to introduce cork around the home, from Wallcork multi-coloured cork wallpaper available at Corque Design to the kitchen storage jars and serving bowls at Corkway. Find cork stools, clocks and lamps which bring a natural, easy air to your interiors - check out  Daniel Schofield and, for the very unusual..well the Nature cork washbasin designed by Alzira Peixoto and Carlos Mendonça will prove a talking point. Made from natural cork, it's varnished to be waterproof and makes a striking focal point in a bathroom. Find it at Corkway.