One Material, Infinite Styles -
Expressing the traditional and modern with concrete
by Fu-Tung Cheng, ConcreteExchange.com
Quick Tour of Concrete As A Decorative Material
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
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.
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?
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 combination:
- 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 be perfect.
As they say, it's all in the details!!
For more information on concrete countertops including books, DVD's, products and training, visit Fu-Tung Cheng's website ConcreteExchange.com