If you are involved in the creative community, you will have noticed the slowly-but-surely growing preponderance of cork as a material used in design. Just in the past few months, my boyfriend bought a cork iPhone case, I was coveting a beautiful cork totebag I saw at Brooklyn Flea, and just a week ago, in consideration of replacing my (very old and crummy) vinyl kitchen flooring from the 80’s, I came across cork as an eco-friendly option. I had seen cork floors used in commercial applications, but hadn’t thought about it before for my own home. Cork is everywhere, and, as I’ve quickly figured out – for good reason!
Cork oak cross-section by Plantsurfer via Wikimedia Commons
While 60% of global cork production is made into corks for wine and champagne, most of the cork that is harvested for any reason comes from just a few countries; Portugal leads with 61% of the cork production, followed by Spain (almost 30%) and Italy (less than 10%). This is because cork is harvested from the cork oak tree, which only really grows in those Mediterranean regions and parts of northern Africa. It takes 25-30 years for a cork oak to reach harvestable status (and that first harvest, and sometime the second one, is of low-quality cork, and cork-cutters must wait another decade to cut that same tree again), so even if cork was to be grown in other regions, it would take almost 50 years to get to the point where the trees could be harvested for high-quality cork, meaning that the existing business probably won’t move very far from where it is now.
Photo of cork oak tree in Portugal by Joergasm via Wikimedia Commons
But when a cork oak is ready, it can be harvested for its outer layers for the rest of its 200-250-year lifespan (about 12 harvests per tree). The trees are not cut down; just their bark—which grows back—is removed. This process actually takes 4-5 skilled laborers using hand-axes, and cannot be performed by a machine. The business is large enough that it annually employs about 30,000 people throughout Europe.
Photo of cork floor in kitchen by Champagne.chic on Flickr
The reason cork has become so popular these days is that the list of its attributes is long: it is a heat and noise insulator (great for homes and offices), it’s lightweight and attractive, it’s fire-resistant, it’s naturally hydrophobic (waterproof) yet breathable, and it can be manipulated into all sorts of shapes and sizes. It’s also entirely biodegradable and it’s growth (like all trees) pulls CO2 from the atmosphere. The oaks also add nutrients to the soil.
Cork oaks are also a part of a dynamic forest ecosystem which in some cases means homes for endangered species. According to sourced material on Wikipedia: “In northwestern North Africa, some cork oak forests are habitat to the endangered Barbary Macaque, Macaca sylvanus, a species whose habitat is fragmented and whose range was prehistorically much wider. In Western Europe, namely in Portugal and Spain, the cork oak forests are home to endangered species such as the Iberian Lynx, the most critically threatened feline in the world.”
Photo by Rennett Stowe via Flickr
According to Allied Cork, the reason for cork’s overall usefulness is it’s basic structure, which is honeycomb-like. “A piece of cork the size of a sugar cube contains around 60 million air-filled pockets. No other material can match that. This makes cork extremely elastic. Cork can be pressed to 40% of its volume, but returns to its original size when released. The honeycomb structure also makes it good for thermal insulation. Cork is a natural heat and noise insulator and has been used to insulate houses for centuries. It has low thermal conductivity and good heat storage properties.” It’s anti-static properties, along with its fire-retardancy and lightness, has proven its usefulness in spacecraft heat shields and clutches for small vehicles.
A vintage 1923 cork floor still in use. Photo by GottShotts via Flickr
Besides seeing so many new uses for cork (yoga blocks, anyone?), it’s always smart to turn back to the past to see what the material has been used for before and how well it stands the test of time— outside of what a cork company claims. Cork floors were actually popular during the Victorian era (handy, since my home was built in 1911) and in especially in well-appointed homes from the era, cork was used as a practical, decorative floor material (see image above—cork can be cut and dyed to create lovely patterns). It was applied especially in high-traffic areas, since it was known even then as a durable material.
According to Starcraft Custom Builders excellent coverage of materials used in Victorian homes: “Many people are surprised to see cork listed as one of the original Victorian flooring materials. Yet, cork has a long history as a resilient flooring going back to the first half of the 19th century. It reached its peak in 1927 when 2.9 million square feet of cork floors were sole. It is very durable. The cork floor in the U.S. Department of Commerce building, installed in 1930, is still in use today, as is the cork floor specified by Frank Lloyd Wright for his “Waterfall” house in Pennsylvania.”
So my (and the design community’s) obsession with cork is a smart, sustainable one, it seems. Though with any trend, I worry a bit that if it gets too popular we will lose that eco-friendly aspect. But for now this amazing natural material is a smart bet.