This story first appeared in the Sunday Times Lifestyle SA on 29 July 2018 (cover shot by Allison Foat)
Green is the new black. With society bristling 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 is being used ever frequently across a diverse range of industry. 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 Cape Town based designer and manufacturer Laurie Wiid van Heerden, is a quintessential example of true sustainability in design. In the time it has taken to read this, the bed will have retained several milligrams of atmospheric carbon dioxide that will in turn translate into 153 kilograms 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, 30, who has exhibited in Switzerland, London and Miami and has clients in Monaco, Dubai, Amsterdam and Australia, first saw cork being used within 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. He is a master of aesthetics and adept at curating conceptual and artistic spaces.
Cork forests are endemic to South West 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 post extraction. Where Portugal supplies half the world’s annual commercial cork output, 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 churning out 5.5 billion per year for some of the finest high end labels in the wine, spirit and craft beer business. Their fierce commitment to research and development has seen the roll out 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 institutions ongoing programme of temporary structures installed by internationally acclaimed architects and designers. What they created was a revelation in the use of cork, 80 square metres worth, supplied by Amorim. When asked about the decision to clad the entire circular lounge in it, Jacques Herzog applauded its sensory appeal -the smooth warm texture, 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.
The eco attributes of cork were once again in the spotlight, this time within sports market. 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 SA, 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 design for the first Leefi sling bag and the rest is history. 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 and floor tile. The renewable renaissance is here and going green has never looked or felt this good.
Visit Southern Guild Gallery at the Silo, V&A Waterfront to see Laurie’s Spektrum Collection, part of the Colour Field Exhibition
All images by Allison Foat unless otherwise stated