Sustainability has been a hot topic for a good few years now and designers are increasingly looking for materials that have a lesser impact on the environment. Materials that are recycled, recyclable, or come from renewable sources are gaining in popularity and really starting to make their mark in design and architecture. Earlier this year, we consulted an innovation consultant and materials specialist who told us about 10 innovative materials to look out for in 2012 and some of these materials really are at the cutting edge of material development. However, there are also some sustainable materials that have been around for years and that have, until now, been somewhat overlooked. One of these materials is cork, an impermeable, buoyant, elastic and fire resistant material that is harvested from the cork oak forests of Southern Europe and North Africa. One company that knows all too well the benefits of cork is Corkway and we caught up with Tiago Cartageno who told us more about this versatile material and how it can be used in the home.
Corkway is the largest online store specialized in the commercialization of cork products. How did it all get started?
The CorkWay Store began its activity after realizing that in Portugal (where the store is based) a lot of brands and designers were creating products using a very traditional raw material, cork. After realizing that, and also the potential of this raw material to make great high-quality products, we decided to select the best collections, not only from Portuguese Brands and Designers, but also from outside of Portugal, where in fact the majority of the products are also made with Portuguese cork.
The majority of the world’s cork comes from Portugal where you are based. Why Portgual?
Portugal is a country that belongs to the Mediterranean Region. The Cork Oak Tree is a native tree and is responsible for the majority of the Mediterranean biodiversity, so we can find cork trees everywhere around here. Our country realized that the businesses around cork could have a great influence on the Portuguese economy as well as on the Mediterranean environment. Because our country is also a great wine producer, with some of the best wines in the world, and because cork is profoundly related to the wine stoppers, every one of these aspects came together to result in a very important business activity.
Portugal alone produces more cork than all the other cork producers in the world, so it is possible to realize the importance we give to this eco-friendly raw material.
Cork has traditionally only really been used to make wine stoppers. What has fuelled its expansion into other markets?
When people talk about cork, the first thing it comes to mind is wine stoppers, but in fact cork is being used for every purpose we can imagine like flooring, walls, furniture, tableware, clothing, even NASA uses it for the isolation of their space shuttles. The industry is realizing that cork is a very resistant waterproof material and of course eco-friendly since its extraction doesn’t harm trees. So all these attributes take cork to another level of importance for every kind of application.
Cork is becoming an increasingly popular material with the design community. Why is this?
Nowadays, the world is living an ecological paradigm. Schools and universities are teaching designers not only to create beautiful and functional objects, but also ethical and eco-friendly ones. So when designers learn about these concerns for the environment, they tend to select eco-friendly materials over standard ones, which is great because we are going towards a green path, and the designer as an object creator, has a special kind of influence in the world and in the community.
So when designers find cork, they find a perfect material for their creations, one that responds to all of their concerns because it is aesthetically beautiful, functional and eco-friendly.
What kind of things are designers making from cork?
Cork is being used for all kind of things but perhaps the most beautiful application is when combined with other materials like porcelain or crystal, as is the case with tableware products. For example in our store we have a tea set made with cork and ceramics. The ceramics give a traditional look to the tea cups, and cork makes them very original and functional, because the cork layer prevents people from being burnt while drinking the hot tea.
Another great cork application is for example the wash basins for bathroom. Because cork is waterproof you can make beautiful wash basins and bath mats. Cork is also great combined with recycled rubber to make great bathroom products in general.
What are the limitations of cork? Is there anything that cork is not an ideal material for?
Well to be honest I haven’t thought about that at all. All that I can think about is the large amount of possible cork applications and not the contrary. Cork is very powerful and can be used to replace a lot of harmful materials like for example plastics, so you can imagine what it is possible to achieve with cork. Plastics are everywhere around us, and because cork is very flexible, there are plenty of ways to use it.
Corkway extols the virtues of cork as an environmentally sustainable material. What makes cork so eco-friendly?
Cork comes from the bark of the Cork Oak Tree. The extraction of the bark is a process that doesn’t harm the tree and it is renewable. Every nine years there is new bark to be removed. So cork is a material that comes directly from nature and there is very little processing involved. So the ecological footprint from its extraction until the final product is incredibly low compared to the industry average of plastic production. Therefore when you hold a cork object in your hand you notice that you are holding a bit of nature and not some synthetic unhealthy material. That’s the beauty of cork.
On the other hand because cork is sustainable, the more people buy it, the more the cork industry needs to plant more cork oak trees, and that creates a cycle that is healthy for the environment of our planet. So supporting cork is supporting nature.
Can you tell us about your social responsibility campaign in partnership with the Green Cork Project of Quercus?
CorkWay project has a partnership with GreenCork from Querqus, a non-profit association that has been supporting Portuguese environment for almost 25 years. Basically we plant a tree for each product we sell or for every Facebook fan.
We think a business should have a large social responsibility within the community, so because our core business is related to a special kind of tree, we think it would be a very important act for us to support its growth.
How would you recommend that people make use of cork in their own homes?
People can use cork in their homes for example using it a flooring because cork is very resistant. Aesthetically speaking is also beautiful to realize its natural pattern when we look at the floor. Besides that there are great uses for cork like bath mats, tableware and lighting.
What is the most unusual use of cork that you have come across so far?
The wash basin for sure. When people look at it, it’s amazing to notice the surprise in their faces. People just love it like a child loves a toy! You can never imagine it would be possible to create a wash basin made from the same material as the wine stopper that you usually pop up while serving wine to your friends.
Freshome would like to thank Corkway for the valuable and insightful information that it has provided about this versatile material. We would love to know how you feel about cork. Do you use it in your home? If not, would you? Let us know down below!