Musings with Fu-Tung Cheng
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Source: Pure Contemporary, August 2006
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What did you go to school for?

Fine Arts.

Ah that's why we see such a soft fine art aesthetic in your concrete, which could be massive, heavy and cold medium. But you add color and texture — talk to me about working with concrete.

We use the elements of practicality and creating of form like they do in industrial design, but we apply it sort of organically to this more earthy material. You can really change its form — add fossils, color, grind or not grind. The first countertop I ever built was for my own house – 25 years ago. It is very organic and almost sculptural. You can sculpt the concrete in a way that you can't do with granite and other materials.

You said you had a fine arts background, which medium did you use?

Sculpture, printmaking, photography and painting.

When did you start working with concrete?

When I bought this really trashy house for $15,000. It was a little shed made by a squatter. It was layers of virgin redwood, sheetrock and newspapers just glued. I didn't have any money. I used recycled wood, went to dumps to get glass. It's really a green house because all the wood is all reclaimed and recycled, the glass was reclaimed.

In volume this house is 1200 square feet — I still live there 30 years later! At the time I said I wanted to make it out of used materials –because a) I couldn't afford new materials, and b) I wanted to make a statement about using "used" things. Now we would call it a green house.

At that time I used Douglas fir, I don't use that anymore, I use bamboo. Wanted to make it out of bamboo – but they didn't have bamboo then!

How do you make the molds for concrete?

We do it in the shop – making them out of wood or plastics.

What do you design besides kitchens and countertops?

I now am designing entire houses too. People started noticing them and asking "are they available." I tell them it is a custom design – so they always say, well if you ever mass produce, call me. Design itself is very difficult to make money. A good way to join a non-profit is to become a designer!

Think about it: if you are trying to innovate – everything you are doing is one of a kind. It is just the complete opposite of efficiency. The way time is money forces us to try and replicate, find uniformity, replication, to get price points down. Labor is too expensive.

I tried to get into products because I thought I could leverage the intellectual property. GeocreteTM allows that. [GeocreteTM is Fu-Tung's custom caste concrete products, which incorporate his proprietary concrete formula, casting process and customization.]

So you have a production line of counters -- that can be customized.

Yes, that is the contradiction. I am playing that contradiction now. I give you a product which has a nurtured the design – and works really efficiently — and can be customized. Add wood, buffalo glass, shelving, drains.

What new products are you dreaming of?

I've designed a line of cabinets. And, believe it or not, a teabag — that will accommodate real tea! I would also like to work on a public space project.

Is there a second favorite material besides concrete that allows the free form of design and expression?

Well I love working with plaster and steel. There is really not a material I don't like working with. Clients of mine say they are getting so tired of granite – I love working with granite — but it is typically only used as a slab on a cabinet. So people aren't tired of granite so much as they are tired of how it is used.

Which fine artist did you most want to emulate?

Wow, in fine art. I loved Paul Klee, Calder, DuChamps, Bruce Connor — who had a funk element. Joseph Cornell. In architecture it would have been Gaudi, Frank Lloyd Wright — a bit of Corbusier.

What product designers do you like to keep an eye on?

I don't know, it's a new area for me. I feel like a street musician who is really appreciated and now I am playing with an orchestra. And well they people are pretty good at what they do – and what am I contributing? And I have to examine that — Because I could get assimilated by their virtuosity, and I could forget what I can bring to the picture.