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Cork It

You have to admire a material that comes back for more, no matter what you do to it. Sink it, burn it, squeeze it, drown it � cork never succumbs.

So, whilst the modern wine industry may be shunning cork as the bottle stopper of choice, its buoyant reinvention at the hands of the design industry is uncorking the new potential in the innate sustainability of this ancient product.

Discovered in Egyptian tombs and found in the ruins of the Greeks, the earliest recorded use of the bark of the cork oak tree dates back at least three thousand years. Later, Mediterranean fishermen would fashion cork into floats, using its natural buoyancy and water-resistance to clinch their catch. But cork’s big boozy break came when eighteenth century champagne king, Dom Pérignon, noted that air pockets would allow for compression into a bottle neck, whilst simultaneously facilitating a return to its original form, thereby creating a seal.

It was not until the twentieth century though that cork became the floor covering of choice in both civic and residential buildings. Here, the same air pockets provided a lightweight, flexible product capable of absorbing sound whilst offering natural thermal insulation. Adding a warm, welcoming feel to interiors, the superior durability of cork made it an obvious alternative to hardwood floors. Now, experimenting with working at different temperatures and with additional pigments, flooring manufacturers such as Haro can offer a large selection of different shades and patterns including light honey to deep coffee tones, stripes and wood effects such as oak and chestnut.

Today, creators and innovators recognise in cork the endless possibilities inherent in its boundless versatility. Previously overlooked, few other products stand to offer impermeability, elasticity and density while remaining a natural visual corker. What is more, cork’s waterproof and insulating characteristics have led design brands such as Corque Design to transform cork into household items such as wine coolers and place mats, as well as creating unique seats, sideboards and tabletops. Experimenting with cutting, gluing, molding and compressing cork, designer Daniel Michalik, comments: “For the first time in my life, I was seeing a material perform in entirely new ways. I felt as if I had woken up in a new, uncharted world.”

Since this revolutionary moment, Michalik has coaxed and sculpted cork into sturdy chairs, elegant, curved chaise longues and modular concave and convex wall panels that, when fitted together, create what he describes as a “three dimensional, rolling landscape along a wall.” Michalik continues, “I have discovered that when handled correctly, the natural flexibility of cork allows it to form fantastic, complex shapes no other material can match.”

Versatility for innovation aside, it is the sustainability of cork that has truly injected new life into a material that has been used for millennia. Harvested by hand in much the same way it has been throughout history, no more than 50 percent of the cork oak’s bark is removed at any one time, ensuring the tree lives on unharmed. Whilst providing for Man, cork also sustains a diversity of endemic wildlife, prevents desertification in arid regions and has an exceptional ability to store carbon dioxide. Add to this the fact that it is a highly recyclable material – cork stoppers and off-cuts can be ground down, molded and baked into new forms – and that processing produces virtually no waste, and you have one of the greenest natural materials known on Earth.

Attractive, flexible and long-lasting, science has thus far been unable to improve on cork’s endless range of qualities. A true gift from nature, we are sure to be popping the cork on this incredible resource for many years to come.

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