Not just for stopping bottles: why cork is trending in the design world
Perceptions about cork are changing as this natural material finds favour with high-end furniture makers, fashion designers and conceptual artists
Green is the new black. With society starting to bristle at the sight of single-use plastics, the quest is on for eco alternatives that play nicely with the planet. Low-impact living is a thing and the lifestyle sector is stepping up to meet a sustainably savvy market.
Enter cork, a stellar example of a recyclable raw material that's being used ever more frequently across a diverse range of industries. From construction to couture, aeronautics to apparel and pretty much everything in between, it is being fêted for its carbon neutrality and we want it.
The Meraki Daybed by Cape Town designer and manufacturer Laurie Wiid van Heerden is a quintessential example of true sustainability in design. In the time it's taken to read this, the bed will have retained several milligrams of atmospheric carbon dioxide that will translate into 153kg of absorption in its lifetime.
Inspired by the ceremonial bed of the West African Senufo tribe, the unconventional chaise was carved from a singular piece of American soft maple and upholstered in cork, the perfectly malleable finish.
Award-winning Van Heerden, who has exhibited in Switzerland, London and Miami and has clients in Monaco, Dubai, Amsterdam and Australia, first saw cork being used for product design in Paris about eight years ago. Particularly au fait with the medium, he also works in glassware, ceramics and lighting and embraces traditional handcrafting in combination with avant-garde techniques.
Cork forests are endemic to southwestern Europe and North Africa and support a unique and fragile habitat for rare and endangered plant and animal species. The mature oak is harvested every nine years by skilled extractors who are among the most highly paid agricultural workers in the world. The bark-peeling process, part technique and part art, is executed with absolute precision, leaving a standing tree capable of healthy regeneration after the cork has been harvested.
Portugal supplies half the world's annual commercial cork output, and the Amorim Group is its largest producer of cork products, a multinational industry leader with an eye on conservation, and a global powerhouse in premium-quality bottle closure production, churning out 5.5 billion per year for some of the finest high-end labels in the wine, spirit and craft beer business.
The company's commitment to research and development has seen the rollout of the first ever natural cork stopper free from TCA, the compound primarily responsible for tainting wine, and the launch of the easy twist-off Helix that presents a welcome challenge to environmentally harmful aluminium screw caps and plastic alternatives.
In 2012 the Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron collaborated with visual artist and activist Ai Weiwei to create the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion as part of the art institution's ongoing programme of temporary structures installed by acclaimed architects and designers. What they created was a revelation in the use of cork, 80m² worth, supplied by Amorim.
Asked about the decision to clad the entire circular lounge in it, Jacques Herzog applauded cork's sensory appeal - the smooth texture, the warmth, aroma and softness - and the pliability that enabled it to be cut and moulded into the desired shapes. The Serpentine's sunken space was recorded as the most-visited pavilion since the concept was introduced in 2000, and hailed as the best yet.
The public and media loved it, reviews were excellent and cork got great PR.
Another boost for the bark came in 2014 when Mercedes-Benz partnered with big-wave surfer Garrett McNamara and Polen Surfboards to produce a progressive surfboard made from Amorim cork and able to withstand the most extreme conditions.
"Cork is a highly resistant material, although sufficiently flexible to withhold the impact of big waves," said McNamara.
Nike was next, giving fashionistas a foot in the door with the LeBron 12 EXT, followed by the 2015 release of an uber stylish sneaker partially constructed from cork, and launched in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Air Max 90s, the most iconic running shoe of all time.
Back in South Africa, Odette Strydom of Leefi Haute Design began making accessories after receiving a small cork bag as a gift from her parents. Amazed by its durability and practicality, she decided on the same material for the first Leefi sling bag.
Strydom echoes the common sentiment about cork, praising its versatility, earth-friendly value and the way it complements any attire. Off-cuts are reused to experiment with new colours and designs, so wastage is minimal.
The luxe market is woke to cork, and perceptions have shifted as the material has moved from its once bland status, when it amounted to not much more than a pin board or floor tile.
The renewable renaissance is here and going green has never looked or felt this good.
• Laurie Wiid van Heerden is part of the Colour Field exhibition that opened on July 19 at Southern Guild in the Silo District, Cape Town