Apart from its innate versatility, cork also has the all-important eco factor, in more ways than one. ‘The renewed popularity of cork fits with the growth in desire for natural products and materials, which is partly a response to the green movement but also a reflection of a new mood and a movement away from glossy modernist interiors to spaces that are warmer, more welcoming and real,’ says Helen Mudie, interior designer and co-founder
of One Eco Home. Mudie is one of several ‘green’ retailers who sell cork products in their stores because of its sustainable status. Cork is sourced from the outer bark of the cork oak (Quercus Suber), most commonly found in Portugal, Spain, southern France, Italy and North Africa. Every decade the cork oak naturally sheds its thick outer bark, which enables the cork to be harvested without any damage to the tree. The bark can continue to be extracted every 10 years until it is about 200 years old (some trees even live to 250), at which point the trees are removed and two new saplings planted, ensuring the resources are replenished continuously.
It is widely thought that the decline in the use of natural cork for wine stoppers in favour of synthetic substitutes has seriously damaged the cork farming industry, particularly in Portugal, where more than half of the world’s natural cork is extracted. This makes its resurgence as a popular product for interiors all the more timely. The first significant flicker of interest in the material’s application in contemporary furniture production can be traced to the launch of Jasper Morrison’s Corks occasional table and stool for Moooi in 2002. It was a perfect fit with his utilitarian aesthetic and Morrison went on to design a family of cork stools for Vitra. But he is not alone in his appreciation of cork. It features in design studio Viable London’s latest furniture range, which includes the Corker lounge chair (with pine frame and cork seat) and Spiral stools, a swiss-roll-style seating solution combing cork, felt and wool. German designer Tomas Kral has also just launched his Plug range of products, inspired by the look of the humble cork bottle stopper. All the items in the collection — from tables and lights to vessels — feature hand-blown glass elements married with hunky chunks of cork.
The same qualities that make cork suitable for furniture and product manufacture — it is light, impermeable (and, therefore, rot resistant), durable and a brilliant insulator — make it the perfect flooring material, something that was proved decades ago before cork fell out of fashion. What’s different now is the choice of cork flooring products available.
‘The research and development in this industry is now delivering a great range of colours and finishes for every taste,’ says Nicola Giuggioli, founder and chief executive of Eco Age. As we know, design trends come and go and cork is very trendy at the moment but, more importantly, it is absolutely competitive in terms of price compared with most flooring materials available on the market.’ Eco Age sells cork flooring by Siesta but there are yet more options to explore. Philadelphia-based design company Mio has come up with a particularly clever modular cork flooring solution with a pleasing patterned effect, which can be applied to an entire floorspace or just a section to provide a spot of geometric interest. In Japan, Aya Koike has added a sense of depth by introducing the Sofa Brick, a buttoned-back tile made of wine cork shavings, which can be applied to floors and walls to act as a shock and sound absorber. These same qualities led British-based designer Sam Pickard to investigate cork in 2006 and her Bamboo Cork wall panel, featuring a bamboo motif etched into the cork, has already proved a big success. Pickard recently received an innovation award from Bath Spa University, enabling her to continue her research.
On the more conventional side, cork wallpaper is also readily available. More interesting, perhaps, is the development of cork fabrics and textiles. Designer Yemi Awosile has made it her mission to investigate cork, initially as part of her studies for a masters degree at the Royal College of Art. ‘In the 1970s cork tended to be coated with a heavy oil-based varnish and, when shown in this way, you can understand how it could fall spectacularly out of fashion,’ says Awosile. ‘In this state it absorbs a lot of light and can appear very dull when, actually, it is an incredibly versatile and exciting material to work with.’ Awosile embarked on a research trip to Alentejo in Portugal, where she learned about cork harvesting and production, culminating in the creation of some exceptionally beautiful cork upholstery fabrics and wall coverings. Aided by a material research fellowship, and with the support of the London Design Festival, Awosile continues to explore cork’s potential. An exhibition of her work later this year promises yet more corking innovations, Robin Levien is the largely unsung hero of bathroom design and the Royal Designer for Industry is unusually modest and unassuming. He has co-designed an estimated 15 per cent of all ceramic bathroom ranges on the market in the UK today. He invented such blessed space-savers as the corner basin, corner cistern and the shower-bath. Yet Levien does not have the celebrity status of, say, Philippe Stark or Zaha Hadid (both of whom have designed bathroom fittings). But that is deliberate on his part — he determinedly avoids celebrity. ‘I want to be judged for my work, not my name,’ he says. And, at the worst, celebrity designers give short change by not designing completely what is credited to them.’
Nevertheless, Levien’s achievements over 30 years in design are definitely of star status.
He has been a Royal Designer for Industry since 1995 and there can be only 200 of these at any one time. These designers are elected by their peers and next year Levien will take up a two- year mastership of the whole faculty. He is the designer of the acclaimed Concept bathroom collection, launched by Ideal Standard at 100% Design last year. Comprising an impressive 100 items, it is the largest range the company has ever produced. In fact, his Studio range for Ideal Standard, with its quintessentially simple shapes, has stayed in production for 20 years, winning numerous awards and selling more than 10 million pieces.
The unflashy nature of Levien’s work appeals widely to interior designers. ‘I am always happy for my designs to fade into the background as an integral part of a scheme,’ he says. For Concept, in particular, Levien had interior designers in mind. ‘I wanted lots of well thought out, simple, practical and affordable
solutions for the bathroom,’ Levien explains. The pieces are interchangeable, based on three distinctive soft-edged basin shapes. Clever details include five widths of glass panel for spashbacks, which can be combined with matching mirrors for a clean, integrated look.
Levien’s Space range for Ideal Standard has attracted design plaudits since its launch in 1996. The designer often remarks that the average bathroom is not much bigger than a king-size bed. Interior designers may not know who created Space but they love the way its basin and the triangular cistern squeeze into corners. Another brainwave is a WC seat fixed at a 45-degree angle so that it can be positioned closer to the wall. The shower-bath was another innovation and these ideas have all been copied widely. ‘Designs that become classics,’ says Levien, ‘have an enduring quality that continues to connect with people over a
long period. Whether the designer is a celebrity or not, either the design has it or it doesn’t.’
Levien’s Trend porcelain for Rosenthal Thomas has been in production even longer than his Studio bathroom fittings and is one of the most successful modern tableware ranges ever, selling £2om of products a year. New from Villeroy & Boch is a range of tableware called New Cottage, with soft rounded shapes that Levien describes as ‘expressive leaves’.
Levien was born in 1952 and brought up in the suburbs of west London. Today his home is a 16th-century Somerset farmhouse set amid 4o acres of its own nature reserve, where Levien enjoys driving a 1952 grey Ferguson tractor.
In 1999 he launched Studio Levien with his wife, designer Tricia Stainton, who has worked with him on many projects. They have no children — ‘it just didn’t work out that way’ — but Levien is strongly committed to students at
many colleges of art and design. He is a visiting professor at the Central School of Art and Design, a member of the Council of the Royal College of Art and an honorary doctor at Staffordshire University.
Essentially, Levien is a ceramics designer, hence the link between bathrooms and tableware. Seven years of art-school training culminated in three years of ceramics at the Royal College of Art, from which he graduated in 1976. Within two years, he went to work for David Queensberry, the distinguished ceramicist who had been his professor. Later he became a partner in Queensberry Hunt Levien.
‘I am simply trying to make the world a better place,’ Levien confides. ‘I get great fulfilment from designing products that fit into the lives of hundreds of thousands of people every day.’ His motto is FAB (‘I am a child of the Sixties’), which stands for Functional, Affordable and Beautiful. ‘A design has to look good, work well and sell at a good price. A design has to perform because you can’t keep it going for 20-odd years if word gets out.’
A particular bathroom bugbear is products that waste energy and water and Levien would like all interior designers to specify thermostatically controlled bath fillers. The Concept water-saving bath only uses 118 litres of water (compared with the usual 225) and meets the requirements of a sustainable home.
Levien sees a definite divide between art and design. ‘Art is about solving your own problems, design is about solving other people’s,’ he says. Ever scrupulous, he credits this aphorism to the graphic artist Alan Fletcher, who died in 2006. Then he adds a typically Levien maxim of his own: ‘What is important is that a person falls in love with a design. It’s this emotional relationship that makes them choose one design over another.’ Behind the smokescreen of form and function is a powerfully poetic sensibility.