Designers turn to texture for zip and variety

Spiderweb woven Barkskin is a an organic, hand-pounded bark material used for wall coverings by Caba.
Spiderweb woven Barkskin is a an organic, hand-pounded bark material used for wall coverings by Caba.
Posted: September 08, 2012

Design-wise, maybe you're an inside-the-box person. That means you choose between fabric or leather for the furniture, wool or cotton for the carpet, and paint or paper for the walls.

Nothing wrong with that. After all, Michelangelo used paint for the Sistine Chapel, did he not?

But some people seek out-of-the-ordinary textures to fulfill ordinary roles. They'll look for cement end tables, river rock floor mats, even wallpaper made of tree bark.

Some products are sustainable, others natural. In the case of Dolores Browne, her plastic sofa and chairs were more practical than anything.

"People were dancing on them, and they are very comfortable," Browne, a local architect, said of the furniture she had for eight years in her event space, the Tpds Club on 12th Street. Now she uses the pieces in her Lower Merion living room.

The furniture pieces, designed by Critz Campbell, have interior lights and are made from fiberglass and polyester resin. A copy of one of them, Eudora, is now in the Mississippi Museum of Art.

Cement furniture, and wall coverings made of felt, tree bark, and copper - interior designer Mary Knackstedt of Harrisburg loves them. "People love natural textures," she said. In fact, she said, she is seeing more finished-concrete floors in stores, restaurants, apartment buildings. "It's a timely material."

Although cork has been used as a design material for many years (Frank Lloyd Wright was a fan, and there has been a cork floor in the Library of Congress for a century), designers keep fiddling with new ideas, experimenting with long-existing materials, and finding ways to turn them into everyday items.

Not all these new creations are au naturel. South Philadelphia fabric designer Maria Farnese, who sells her messenger bags on the craft site Etsy, discovered vinyl one day in a fabric store on Fourth Street. "I thought it was leather," she said. "I love the feel, look, and color options of this vinyl."

Now the bags, which she began making for friends and family, have been discovered by customers beyond the bike-messenger group: They are perfect as diaper bags. The vinyl can be wiped down, and it doesn't crack. Farnese, who with her husband also owns Mr. Martino's restaurant on Passyunk Avenue, discovered that factoid when she mailed a bag to a potential advertiser. When the advertiser mailed it back to her in a small envelope, it was all wrinkled. Not wanting to ditch the bag, she tried ironing it. "It was fine. It made it even softer."

For Daniel Michalik, a product designer based in Brooklyn, cork unexpectedly became his brand when he set out to do his master's thesis at the Rhode Island School of Design. He needed lots of cheap material, and a supplier he came across was eager to unload 2,000 pounds of cork.

"I could experiment as much as I wanted to; I didn't have to worry about failure," he said. With so much, he was able to make some exciting discoveries. Cork bark, because of its cell structure, can compress and recover in ways that other materials can't. By slicing into it, Michalik can relieve pressure and manipulate it. "It could flex and move on its own," he said.

A year after Michalik graduated, he went to the Milan furniture fair with his "thesis" and received enough orders for his lounge chairs and stools to allow him to start a business.

He began making tableware as gifts, but the products were so well received that Michalik decided to sell to the public. Cork seemed to be a natural fit for the plates and bowls - it is water resistant, and he uses a beeswax sealer so it resists staining.

Also, cork bark grows back after being harvested.

As does the bark on fig and mulberry trees, said Lara Rabkin, a part-owner of Caba Co., a 38-year-old, family-owned business based in New Mexico. The bark, which can mimic stone or even leather, is used for wall coverings - which range from $4 to $7.50 a square foot - and lamp shades.

Michael Smith used Caba products when designing for the Obama White House.

"Every sheet is different," Rabkin said.

The river rock floor mat, sold for the last three years by Wind & Weather, is made from handpicked small river stones. "I can put three, four [stones] in my hand," said the catalog's product manager, Birgitt Thornhill. "They literally pick them out of the rivers."

Some people use them in the bathroom. Water is absorbed in the mesh underneath the stones. "It feels great on the feet," she said. About 1,000 mats were sold last year, she said.

As for who would buy a cement end table, meet Lisa Benn Costigan, a graphic designer living in Thornton, Chester County. "I like all things cement, metal . . .. Why? I think I like it because it's organic, it has clean lines, it isn't fussy."

It's not that heavy, either: Measuring almost two feet high and two feet wide, it's hollow inside. And no need for a pair.

"One is eye-catching; two would be boring."

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