Cork modular is another proof that there are very high quality solutions based on production processes committed to sustainability without sacrificing costs and optimizing resources.
From Porto, IRENA ÜBLER, an Austrian-German designer based in Portugal, creates from the main raw material cork (a noble and environmentally friendly material) an entire line of furniture for both home and business. Today we talk to her about her work and her ideas.
Tell us about your product. What is Cork modular? How would you define your designs?
The design of the collection is based on geometrical shapes inspired by the environment and focuses on flexibility to allow many combinations and scalability in terms of usability.
Do you know when observing cork under a microscope the cell structure is formed out of a hexagonal pattern?
I believe in puristic modular design based on geometric shapes inspired by environment.
The playful aspects within the design process of Como, with all its experimental approaches, started in 2015 and still continues until the moment the customer will sit down and assemble his cork parts to his final shelving units. Co-creation, creativity and imagination plays a very important role in the concept of the brand Corkmodular. The adaptability and customization of the modules into many final purpose is quite unique.
CORK: SUSTAINABILITY, SOFTNESS AND FLEXIBILITY
Why the choice of cork as raw material of manufacture? What does this material offer you with respect to others traditionally used in the manufacture of furniture?
Sustainability came first when I chose working with the raw material cork and when I started to develop modular cork furniture in 2016. It is a 100% natural raw material, that is 100% reusable and 100% recyclable.
The fact that cork is a traditional heritage of Portugal and be able work with local Portuguese resources made it even more convincing for me. For smaller production series you can work with CNC fabrication and for more quantity it can manufactured with compression moulding. Besides this cork comes with the advantage of great material characteristics like smooth touch, nice odour and flexibility in manufacturing process.
Another plus is the softness and this is also great for kids furniture for example, since they don't hurt them so easily when running / falling into it. Cork is an outstanding and very special material in the furniture industry.
LOCAL ECONOMY AND SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT
There is no doubt that Cork Modular is committed to production, to combining development and protection of the environment, sustainable development. What is your vision for the future of the production model?
The cork industry is well-known for being environmentally friendly. Cork production is generally considered sustainable because the cork tree is not cut down to obtain cork; only the bark is stripped to harvest the cork. The tree continues to live and grow.
My intention is always to combine design aesthetics with productive efficiency. In our future production model cork will always play a main role in terms of material but we are experimenting with new combinations to continue with a playful and colourful mood. Lately we introduced wooden frames for the cork modules, makes the structure more rigid and in this way new side tables variations arise while lifting them up from the ground. We have also a new collection of lightning cubes, which actually the idea originated from the material offcuts of the smallest module of the Momo collection.
Do you think that this step, which you have already taken, is unstoppable and will be extended to all economic sectors? Or is sustainability incompatible with the models of the big corporations that dominate the world market?
In general I feel that sustainability gets more and more important, people are more alert to sustainable products and the way it is produced, but unfortunately it is still a very small amount in a worldwide perspective. Most times it is rather a personal attitude for choosing the ‘green way‘ and it needs a particular conviction creating products with environmental awareness demand. Unfortunately we live in a very capitalistic world, producing sustainable products still costs more money. As long ‘lowcost‘ still sells better than ‘environmental friendly‘ the economic sector will not change that quick.
In many cases sustainable products are more expensive and are seen as a luxury product. This fact makes that these products are also only affordable for a niche target group. We can only keep dreaming of a day in the future when it will be possible to extend this model to all economic sectors. Sustainability does not get enough importance within a fast pace lifestyle and many people get triggered by the forced need to keep buying always something new and more things.
We are still far away from this reality, but indeed I am rather optimistic and I believe that step-by-step more and more people will think and act environmentally aware. The people should consume less but more qualitative. The big companies and industry should follow stricter constraints in their product development and way of production, it should be not only intention making more and more profit at the expense of our ecosystem.
Within the european governments at least you can feel a trend in supporting and promoting Circular Economy and this might be the future.
In addition to the choice of raw materials, in this case cork, does Cork Modular use other sustainable strategies in any of the phases of its productive model?
Our cork is grown and transformed into solid boards 30 km south of Porto and ee produce locally in the circumference of Porto in order to avoid a lot of transportation in collaboration with two medium size factories where we luckily still can manufacture small series instead of investing in big stock.
Since solid cork boards - like we use it for our products - is quite an expensive raw material our intention is always to use it very wisely by avoiding lots of material loss. In the production planning sometimes it feels like playing ‘tetris‘ in order to utilise efficiently as much area as possible of the cork boards.
I believe in the importance of creating a more sustainable industry and aim to have a transparent business approach. Being honest about where our products are made, how, from whom and the origin of each raw material.
SUSTAINABLE DESIGN TO SUIT EVERY POCKET
What would you say to those who consider that sustainable design is more expensive? Do you think that this commitment is valued by the customer or they rather the "low-cost furniture" model of the big supermarkets?
Yes, I would say - at least in many cases - that the use of sustainable materials is more expensive. The clear commitment to sustainable design is not easy since there is a lot of competition in the furniture industry and in the end very often the money talks.
The big companies with low cost furniture which are produced in huge quantities in the end wins over the small local brands. But smaller companies have to invest in finding their niche market to be successful. Sometimes it is a long though way. The Portuguese reality is even more difficult since a lot of people don't have the possibility to spend a lot of money in sustainable products or not yet valorize it. Therefore reaching out for the international market is very important.
The elevated cost of the raw material cork might be one of the view disadvantages. But by explaining the complexity of the harvest and transformation from the oak bark into solid cork boards is one of the attempts to rise up the value at the customers.
I have to empathize at this point that the oak tree keeps growing for many years and keep producing cork without being cut down like ordinary trees.
As an industrial designer and entrepreneur, what advice would you give to designers who are just starting out and want to create their own brand? Would you encourage them to develop their project under a sustainable development model?
I believe that sustainability will be always a strong point in product development and I always recommend it to the makers and also to the buyers with the hope both will put more value in these aspects.
Another good advice is making it a strong part of the communication and storytelling. The user likes to know how a product is made and what is its story behind. Like this you can create a connection between the object and its user with the hope that it will be valorised in a more powerful way.
When you start your own brand you have to believe in it completely and thoroughgoing, but be also really sensible in feedback and customers opinion. Another struggle in the beginning is the difficulty to be able to buy little amounts of raw material for making prototypes and start with smaller production series. At this point I advice to create collaborations; I got a worthwhile support from Amorim Cork Ventures in the very beginning and beyond question this was worth one's weight in gold. Without any doubts it will be a thought time from the very beginning on when you start working like crazy but getting little result. It is a long way but it is definitely worth it.
From our Blog Eko, we really appreciate the effort and commitment of people such as Irena, who in charge of Corkmodular make the difference mixing design, sustainability and natural materials through the eco-design.
Think that with your purchase you are contributing to promote a change towards a fairer industry and a society that is more respectful of the consumption and the environment.