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The Work of Skilled Artisans is Rooted in the Art of Design
More Than Just a Countertop
I began teaching countertop-making in February of 2002, shortly after the launch of my first book, Concrete Countertops. What began as classes to gage the amount of interest on the narrow subject of concrete countertops has progressed and evolved into a movement toward good design, creativity, and craftsmanship for the whole home environment. Through teaching Cheng Concrete Exchange Members and advanced do-it-yourselfers the techniques of shaping sculptural countertops—techniques that have been part of the Cheng Design repertoire for nearly two decades—I have realized that our designs and techniques have derived from our designs of whole houses. Our design of kitchens and baths are not simply a matter of inserting concrete counters onto the tops of box cabinets.
Coming from a design/build company perspective for high-end clientele (we’ve never been a run-of-the-mill concrete countertop company), our countertop designs are creative highlights in homes where practicality and expression are valued above all else. Experimenting on kitchens with handsome budgets has given us the opportunity to use concrete with a host of other materials, some common, some uncommon. Our designs opportunities have been vast, sometimes whole houses, sometimes major renovations.
Good Design is Everything
Where appropriate, I design walls in concrete that support counters, sculpt in shapes to enhance the feel of a working space, inlay materials in the tops to reflect the wall tiles—but above all, in all cases, we use our license-to-design as an opportunity to be creative. Everything that we teach in class about drain-boards, sink sizes, sink types, joints, mosaic inlays, countertop thicknesses, dropped edges, cutting boards, and even wall supports, we teach with “good design” in mind.
Without this holistic understanding, an understanding of the principles of good design, I feel that the students will produce imitations, work that may be limited in scope and handicapped in creativity. But far worse, they may produce work that is gratuitously expressive, or arty—indulgent without grounding. It’s for this reason that in our Advanced Countertop Design Training, I spend the first five hours of the first day focused on kitchen design and its relationship to counters. My goal is to graduate a creative partner through this exchange, not simply a technician or a misappropriated artist.
An Art Piece of a Sort
The high-end, sophisticated clientele we have cultivated over the past twenty years at Cheng Design demands innovation and unique, customized installations. They want what they perceive most others do not have. One of my more colorful clients, Terry McMillan, the author of Waiting to Exhale, came into my office ten years ago and says: “If I see another granite countertop I’m going to puke!”
High-end buyers want to live in their aesthetic. They collect art when they have consumed everything else to their pleasing. They want to deal with a knowledgeable, design-savvy professional that’s capable of conceiving and executing new concepts and ideas. This high-end buyer sets trends that eventually make it to the broader consumer market.
Working for the high-end market has consistently given us recognition in the press. Just over the past decade we have been featured in over 100 major publications as diverse as LA Times, Dwell, Fine Homebuilding, Architectural Digest, and Residential Architect.
The New Material of Choice
The concrete countertop market is at a pivotal point. Consumers, inspired by magazines featuring high-end kitchen designs with concrete countertops, are eager to find the craftsmen of these published works. At the same time, many concrete professionals who install acid-stained and stamped concrete floors as well as other finished flatwork, sense an opportunity to expand their business to include concrete countertops.
It is my conviction that the consumer will quickly tire of concrete as a countertop material if it is simply used as substitute for any other flat-slab manufactured countertop material such as quartzite, Corian®, or granite.* Without the artistry, the sculpting, and the sense of integration into design and style, concrete countertops will fail to capture the imagination of the end-user as they inevitably discover the vulnerabilities of concrete—namely its porosity and propensity to stain. Without good design, concrete is just porous stone.
Conversely, the craftsmen, initially so inspired by the creative potential of this medium, will also tire of the relentless assault by the low-entry, low-rent fabricators all too willing to grind out a by-the-square-foot-slab strategy and under-cut any reasonable pricing structure.
Fu-Tung Sees Differently
The vision I offer up is a throw-back to the era of the guild, the artisan, and the craftsman integrated with the tools of the 21st century. I envision the success of Cheng Design to capture the imagination of the press and public alike, adopting this idea of melding design and craftsmanship.
Inadvertently, I found the way to create the “timeless” feel in our work. It is one used by indigenous craftspeople and native artists, and historically by the non-architects who created Chaco Canyon, and the masons who built cathedrals: they took their time and worked with their hands. They were intimately connected to the design, the planning as well as the execution of their work.
I have an idea of how this movement may shape up: we are a guild of professionals situated around the country. Concrete is our medium of expression. Trained in the art of design, we take on major custom concrete projects from local architects and homeowners. We can cast on-site or off-site floors, walls, fireplace surrounds, furniture, water pieces, and countertops. We invent new applications with our knowledge and experience. We have teams of design professionals that gather for larger projects like movie productions. We create real value for our clients that they see as an investment to be enjoyed while it accrues “interest”. Meanwhile, we enjoy the privilege of a creative process as artisans, and reap the rewards as entrepreneurs.
I’ve always believed that concrete countertops could avoid becoming just a passing fad, or an alternative to granite or Corian®, by being a creative alternative to both. The first thing I say to our seminar students is: “We are not selling wall-to-wall carpets, priced per square foot,” like flatwork installers of driveways and patios. No, we are artisans: “We are selling Persian carpets by the piece,” valued for artistry, pedigree, and craftsmanship, not for size. We never quote by the square foot, like they do granite. Quoting by the square foot is a one-way street that leads inevitably to a cul-de-sac where the lowest common denominator, price point rules and consolidation, replication, and the least amount of hand-work and craftsmanship possible through mechanization make for lower prices, not inspired work.
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