One Material, Infinite Styles -
Expressing the traditional and modern with concrete
Quick Tour of Concrete As A Decorative Material
has been used for centuries to form all sorts of structures and surfaces. Most
people think of it as an exterior material for large bridges or skyscrapers,
public sidewalks or roads. In fact, concrete has extensively been used as a
decorative and structural material in architecture and building in our recent
past. During the 1920s and 1930s, concrete expressed all the sculptural
functions for which stone was traditionally used. It was an inexpensive
substitute for granite and marble. Elaborate molds were made to cast columns,
capitals, balustrades, and neo-classical facade details for the exterior.
Extensive interior applications of concrete included floors (Terrazzo,
acid-washed, and smooth-troweled) and fireplaces. In fact, a walk around
Berkeley, California (where Cheng Design is located) turns up a variety of
concrete examples or settings that might otherwise be called "traditional." At
UC Berkeley's Edward Track and Field stadium, the walls are formed tableaus of
classical details with a "moderne" touch. Bernard Maybeck's renowned Church of
Christ Scientist (1910) is not only a great example of the Arts and Crafts
movement in architecture, but also features exposed concrete walls, beams,
columns and cladding with exquisite detail evocative of the Beaux-Arts tradition
with a truly modern touch for the time.
During the 1950s and 1960s, with the advent of Modernism, less decorative
detail in architectural styling meant less use of concrete for that purpose.
Soon it was used strictly for its practical, structural value. "Form follows
function" was the rallying cry of the brave, new architects as a reaction, in
part, to the wedding cake architecture of neo-classicism. Developers were only
too happy to oblige as the lack of craftsmanship meant less skilled labor and
that, of course, meant more profit margin. You could say "boredom followed
function" after the minimalist purity of the original creative intent exhausted
itself by the 1970s.
Today, we are clearly in the beginnings of a renaissance of expression and
creativity in concrete. Tools are now available to the public (professional and
amateur) that were once the prerogative of the specialists. The potential for
creative expression in concrete are boundless with these tools. With a little
attention to detail, concrete—that infinitely pliable material—can take on any
look you care to give it. Acid washes, stamping tools, poly-urethane molding
material, diamond pads, soft cut blades, diamond floor polishers, rapid-set
concretes, water reducers—all have made the task not only easy, but fun.
Breaking the Mold
use in kitchens and bathrooms may still be considered relatively "modern"
design-wise by the standard homeowner. But while concrete can be used to create
a modern or minimal look, it's also perfectly adaptable to a more traditional
setting—where it was so extensively used in the first place. In truth, there are
no standard guidelines that, if followed, will guarantee you'll get a certain
look. All "styles" are really just an amalgamation of details that evoke a
certain feeling when used together.
For example, combine a stone hearth, shuttered windows, and dried herbs
hanging from the kitchen ceiling and you might think of a home in Provence,
France, even though each of these elements also show up in plenty of other
styles. Pair glass cabinets with white porcelain fixtures and you might think
you're in a San Francisco Victorian—or take away ornamentation all together and
you might end up with something more Shaker. Thinking of style as an assortment
of possibilities rather than as a prescription or recipe is actually quite
freeing, and it's suddenly much easier to understand how concrete might fit in
just about anywhere!
Concrete can act as a substitute for more traditional materials. Rather than
just using concrete to explicitly re-create something from the past, you can
also combine it with other elements to suggest a timeless quality. In my work at
Cheng Design, I always strive to strike a balance between innovation and
emotion, between spare contemporary and warm traditional. Adding mosaic tile
along the front edge of a concrete surface, inlaying bits of tile along a back
splash, or even embedding a fossil in a countertop all connect us to the past.
kitchen countertops means working with the style of the kitchen. Ninety percent
of the kitchens in the United States are some form of traditional or
quasi-traditional design. If you wish to start a business crafting counters, or
you want something special for your own home, it is crucial to have an
understanding of traditional styles and their origins. Looking at styles means
more than simply grabbing a particular detail and force-feeding it into a new
setting, or environment.
The style that we associate with a particular era evolved from the function,
art, craft, and technology of that time. They were appropriate for their time. I
have seen, for example, where Corinthian columns were plastered to the end panel
of an island cabinet simply to evoke the idea of "classical." There was no rhyme
nor reason, no use or function, for them except to convince us that it was a
traditional kitchen. This is a type of design I call "Wedding Cake" or "Costume"
design. It is a kind of design that is the opposite of "timeless," for it serves
as only a nostalgic reference to the past.
Design with Balance
So how does a conscientious craftsperson, designer, or fabricator overcome
the timeless and traditional contradiction?
takes a sense of design and a sense of balance and restraint. I have designed a
few kitchens that are "traditional," or more precisely, that convey a feeling of
a traditional style. Yet, a closer look will reveal that if just a few materials
were changed (concrete counters for tile counters) and the treatment of the
cabinet doors simplified (flat panels of natural bamboo instead of raised
panels), a kitchen could easily morph into a "contemporary style" (graphic to
the left). In this particular case, the design "bones," or layout of shapes, is
what makes this kitchen work practically and aesthetically across all styles.
Conversely, I could have easily cast the same edge detail (in the current
counter's tile trim) in concrete countertops with a white cement and thicken the
edge up a bit as well. Doing this would make the kitchen fit very well into the
California cottage we renovated recently moved from "traditional" to
"transitional" (graphic to the left). A large concrete curved wall/counter
boldly separates the living room from the kitchen. Meanwhile, a stainless steel
integral sink countertop straddles one wall—yet, by inlaying glass tiles into
the back splash and inserting a traditional plate holder in the cabinetry,
enough balance is achieved to avoid a conflict of styles.
Lets take a turn-of-century "Craftsman" style kitchen for a hypothetical
example. The cabinets would most likely be frame-and-panel with flush inlay
doorframes. There would be wood wainscoting in the dining area and perhaps tile
around a single porcelain sink. The lighting fixtures might have beveled glass
or echoes of Tiffany lamps. What concrete application would be appropriate in
this situation? I would look into one or more of the following ideas in
- Choose an earth tone color or natural gray. No bright colors.
- Keep the front face, or thickness, of the countertop at a minimum of
2-1/2". up to 5".
- Inset "panels" into the front face of the countertop to reflect the
cabinets doors. These panels would be no deeper than 3/8" and would measure
approximately 1/3" to the height of the front face, or
- Recess the appropriately sized or proportioned ceramic tiles with some
embossing on them into the face of the countertop or into a cast backsplash.
Allow the recess to be at least 1/4" in depth.
- Mosaic tiles in groups of four separated by 1/8"-1/4" spacing could be
placed on the countertop surface as inlaid "trivets" next to the stove
burners. (In the mold, they would be placed face down on the bottom of the
Line the drain board into the sink with tile or marble.
Now I wouldn't want to use all of the above accents—just enough to carry a
complementary flavor to the Craftsman look and feel. The concrete itself is
earthy enough to carry that load. It's up to you as a homeowner or designer to
add the touch that personalizes and enhances the piece. In some cases, for
instance, the overwrought "traditional English manor" kitchen, usually full of
elaborate detailing, can use a touch of restraint—the concrete counter with a
simple ogee edge detail and a complementary white porcelain farm sink might just
As they say, it's all in the details!!
For more information on
countertops including books, DVD's, products and training, visit
Fu-Tung Cheng's website