There is no stopping cork.
Once best known for closing wine bottles, the nonflammable oak wood from ancient Mediterranean forests is today’s hot design material. As part of London’s Cultural Olympiad this past summer, architects Herzog & de Meuron and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei created the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in Hyde Park as an undulating, underground “landscape in cork.” For the launch of Guimarães, Portugal, as 2012 European Capital of Culture, sculptor Gabriela Gomes unveiled the first all-cork modular home. And at April’s influential Milan Furniture Fair, more cork than ever was in evidence—used for children’s building blocks and lamp bases that doubled as bulletin boards. Meanwhile, the Portuguese Pavilion at last year’s Shanghai Expo was covered in cork, torn off in souvenir pieces by the multitude of visitors.
“This material is so flexible and eco-friendly,” says Guta Moura Guedes, director of Lisbon’s Biennale ExperimentaDesign, a design and architecture show. “It’s perfectly positioned to become a 21st-century tool.”
Not bad for a slow-growing under-bark whose first boom was sparked by the 17th-century Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon, seeking to keep the fizz in Champagne.
“A few years ago, we had to climb mountains to convince clients to consider cork. It wasn’t a world-class material,” says Vasco Magalhaes of Arquitectos Anónimos, a firm in Porto, Portugal, that jump-started visibility for the local resource with a 2007 country house covered in waterproof cork blocks. “Right now, there is a cork Saturday night fever.”
Innovation has been spurred mainly by Amorim Group, the longtime industry leader, which produces 3.5 billion stoppers a year. “We have a responsibility to mark a new future out of cork’s past by setting the bar high,” says company Chairman Antonio Amorim.
“I was astonished by how cork allows for such a large variation of use,” says Boisbuchet Director Alexander von Vegesack. “Producing no waste or health risks, cork fits the demand for green products.”
Now, cork surfboards are making an appearance. At a NATO Summit in Lisbon two years ago, world leaders were presented with gifts in cork: U.S. President Barack Obama got a leash for his Portuguese water dog; U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a cork clutch bag. Cork & Co. (www.corkandcompany.pt), a shop in Lisbon’s touristic Bairro Alto district, showcases umbrellas, soccer balls, lounge chairs, even a cooking apron molded from thin and flexible sheets of the stuff. Simple Forms, a small design firm in Porto, has won recognition for its elegant cork-rubber bathroom sink. Design-competition proposals for baby cribs as well as coffins made of cork give “cradle to grave” new meaning.
But these are just the start. To improve fuel efficiency and fire safety, lightweight cork seat frames have been tried by Brazilian airplane producer Embraer SA. Mercedes-Benz has developed a luxury sedan trimmed in cork. “Cork is the vegan leather,” says Carlos de Jesus, Amorim’s top spokesperson.
Amazingly absorbent, cork has shown its ability to soak up oil spills in lab tests. Cork’s “cellular memory”—molecules return to their former shape—may lead to further uses in anti-earthquake retrofitting. NASA put the adaptable wood on the tip of its space capsules for thermal insulation. But when it comes to futuristic applications, Amorim says promise has also been shown in a thin membrane of cork fabric that can repulse the strongest bullets.
But few of today’s imaginative ideas would have made it onto drawing boards without cork’s competition from screw-top bottle caps, plastic stoppers and aluminum Tetra Paks. These “alternative wine closures” grabbed more than a quarter of the world market back in 1999, according to Portuguese industry figures. “We got the proverbial kick in the pants,” admits Amorim’s Mr. de Jesus, before the company invested heavily in research and development and manufacturers began squeezing more value from the leftovers in their industrial production.
Cork producers fought back, finally starting to recover lost market share in the wine market by 2010, according to Apcor, the Portuguese cork association. Cork trees can survive 250 years but their reddish trunks can only be stripped every nine years, with the best wood coming only after three yields. Amorim’s “Save Miguel” ad campaign, fronted by comic Rob Schneider, defends natural cork by educating consumers about the value of maintaining cork forests through replanting. World Wildlife Fund reports also back cork’s sustainability.
Adding to cork’s “green” image are recycling programs for wine stoppers established by airlines such as American, in its Admirals Club lounges, retailers such as Carrefour and Las Vegas casinos such as Aria.
The industry’s recovery has led to a shift in the perception of cork. Associated with cheap flooring and insulation, fishing floats, cigarette filters, “no one really valued it,” explains Cork & Co. founder Pedro Lucena, a former lawyer, “even though cork is our soul.”
Adds Ms. Moura Guedes, of Lisbon’s Biennale ExperimentaDesign, “I always adored cork but had none in my house because the design was so bad.”
To remedy that image, she was enlisted two years ago by Amorim to start Materia, a line of trendy products developed by Portuguese, French and Japanese designers. These include nearly noiseless kids’ drums, ice buckets, and, in a play on cork bulletin boards, a voodoo doll ready for pinning.
Future prototypes include shelving and tile systems. “Since cork can modulate temperature and damp sound,” says Ms. Moura Guedes, “it could turn up in large public spaces, terminals or restaurants” and be applied beyond existing soundproofing usage in recording studios.
More than a public-relations spin, these physical properties ensure the material’s future. As Mr. de Jesus notes, every cork stopper contains a remarkable 800 million cells. Soon there may be nearly as many uses.