Concrete: a new medium for creative expression
Concrete. The word alone conjures up images of ribbons of heavy, gray slabs lined up along city streets, forming sidewalks and driveways, aesthetically devoid of style or grace or color.
But a designer by the name of Fu Tung Cheng, who was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Van Nuys in a family of artists, saw concrete in a whole new way – as decorative material for communicating culture, art and a sense of play in home interiors.
In 1978, Cheng founded his design business in Berkeley, where he built a reputation for innovative contemporary kitchen and bath design. Since then, his company has evolved into a custom home and commercial product design firm, emphasizing close working relationships between design and craftspeople to foster a unique blend of art-and-building teamwork, says Cheng’s Web site, http://www.chengdesign.com.
Cheng’s work has been featured in more than a hundred publications, including books and interior design periodicals, such as Architecture Magazine, Metropolitan Home and U.S. Home & Architectural Trends His work as also garnered numerous awards, most recently the top honors of “Bath of the Year,” first place, and “Innovative Product of the Year,” second place, by Kitchen and Bath Business (KBB).
Cheng’s concrete countertops caught the attention of Nevada County contractor Jim Allen, owner of Construction Et Cetera, who specializes in kitchen and bath remodeling. “I think this is the next biggest product that’s hitting the market,” he said. “If you look through the builder’s magazines, I’d say probably 30 to 40 percent of the high-end appliances you see that are advertised are set in concrete. Five years ago, you didn’t see any concrete.”
When Allen asked employee Mike Ferrante what he thought about concrete countertops, he said, “No, uh, I don’t think I’d want a sidewalk on my counter.” That’s the same reaction many people have, Allen said. But he encouraged Ferrante to check out Cheng’s Web site, where he saw concrete being used in a whole new way.
“It’s a really exciting product. It has a lot of variations and a lot of flexibility,” he said.
Both men went down to Berkeley about a year ago and took a course in basic concrete countertop making from Cheng, who is one of the pioneers in the field.
“It’s taken him about 20 years to come up with these proprietary mixes that has all the different color variations,” Allen said. “And there’s additives and a lot of different things in there that help the concrete so it doesn’t get spider-webbed with cracks and that sort of thing you’re used to seeing in concrete.”
The proprietary mix developed by Cheng is called NeoMix, which comes in a dozen different colors.
“I sent Mike back down to do the advanced course, where you are actually able to get registered as an installer of their product,” Allen said.
“I went down into the Bay Area for five days, Monday through Friday, at the workshop – eight hours a day – and got into some of the more intricate parts of making concrete countertops,” Ferrante said. “You can integrate drain boards, what ever you can think of, you can do.”
There are two different methods of making concrete countertops: pour-in-place and template-and-mold.
“There are pour-in-place counters, but you’re not going to get the kind of finish with one out of the mold, because they’re going to be hand-troweled,” Ferrante said. In order to achieve the high-gloss finish that resembles polished granite, “you build them upside down and backwards. You have to build the negative,” he said.
Allen said they build concrete countertops the same way as granite countertops, using templates.
“Once we make the templates, we’re about three weeks from that point to install,” he said. “We manufacture them off-site. The rest of the job site is still able to continue with their regular schedule. We come in just like any other subcontractor at that time that it’s ready, install the tops in a day and we’re gone.”
And what about the cost?
“It’s competitive with the solid surface materials, like granite,” Allen said. “It really depends on to what extent you want to go to. In the higher-end kitchens, now we’re putting in concrete walls on the ends and buttresses and designing the tops to set into those. It just depends on how much of the kitchen you want in concrete.”
And like granite, concrete countertops need a minimal amount of maintenance to preserve its finished surface.
“It’s just like any other solid surface material – Corian, granite – you have to seal it occasionally. You just do a little water test on it … put a little drop of water on it, if it soaks in, it’s time to reseal it. If it beads up on top, then you’re good to go,” Allen said. “We use a wax that has carnauba … like car wax … You can work food preparation on top and it doesn’t affect the food at all.”
But perhaps the biggest reason why Allen and Ferrante would like to see more concrete countertops installed in Nevada County homes is the satisfaction derived from working in the medium.
“I like the creativity … it’s kind of like Christmas time when you de-form,” Ferrante said, “because you spend all this time making your molds and you pour the concrete in it and then you have to wait four days, while it’s curing. Then you get to de-mold it to see what’s there. It’s like unwrapping presents. It’s exciting. It’s fun to pop it out and see how it came out.”
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