Taming concrete

The launch of three pieces in the new Concrete Collection represents the second stage in a global project undertaken by Matali Crasset with a small French company to bring concrete into the home. Might it be the first phase in a manufacturing revolution?

This article was originally published in Domus 965 / January 2013

In the last three or four years, there has been exponential growth in the number of experiments and projects designed to bring concrete, in the form of furniture and objects, into the home. Advances in concrete-related technology have supported these experiments and fuelled the creativity of a small vanguard of designers who have explored this material's potential. For example, it can lose its surface porosity and become extremely lightweight (the range of ultra high performance concrete is constantly expanding), change appearance in complex mixtures obtained through combinations with other materials, and merge with a patented fabric that solidifies in 24 hours to be modelled as desired.

Hence it did not come as a total surprise to see the launch — in the latest edition of the Interieur biennial — of a furniture collection created by Matali Crasset , a designer and the art director of the French company Concrete by LCDA . While on one hand it represents the latest manifestation of a design process that was already underway, it also brings research focused on "domestic concrete" into a global system that has transformed the whole company, as well as highlighting the entrepreneurial potential of a geographical area that does not usually see design as an element that can add value. The path that emerges is promising and could spark a manufacturing revolution, as demonstrated by Matali Crasset's project for Concrete by LCDA.
The lamp (weighing
18 kg) is made from ultra high
performance raw concrete.
The light source is provided by
a PCB (printed circuit board)
consisting of 36 0.5W LEDs
powered by a 24V electricity
supply. A diffuser made of a
white light spectrum moulded
acrylic sheet increases
diffusion and offers an ecoefficient
solution
The lamp (weighing 18 kg) is made from ultra high performance raw concrete. The light source is provided by a PCB (printed circuit board) consisting of 36 0.5W LEDs powered by a 24V electricity supply. A diffuser made of a white light spectrum moulded acrylic sheet increases diffusion and offers an ecoefficient solution
Loredana Mascheroni: What were the beginnings of your collaboration with this small company from the Maine-et-Loire region?
Matali Crasset: It started from a meeting with three young entrepreneurs — Julien Gay, Julien and Valentin Delalande — who in 2010 relaunched LCDA, a small concrete firm based in Montreuil Juigné, near Angers. Specialised in the production of lightweight concrete, they wanted to use the company's know-how and apply it to new projects. Since becoming the art director of the new Concrete by LCDA in 2011, I have pushed the company in a contemporary direction and worked to create a global project that will give it a new identity. The Concrete Collection that we recently launched is the second step in a four-stage journey.
The tabletop is made from a
rigid honeycomb core coated
with a 10-mm layer of ultra
high-performance fibrereinforced
concrete thanks
to an exclusive moulding
system. This technique makes
it possible to achieve a weight
(80 kg) that is 4 times lighter
than a traditional structure
The tabletop is made from a rigid honeycomb core coated with a 10-mm layer of ultra high-performance fibrereinforced concrete thanks to an exclusive moulding system. This technique makes it possible to achieve a weight (80 kg) that is 4 times lighter than a traditional structure
The first part of this transformation project was the Concrete Fab, which was launched in the autumn of 2011.
I decided to start with the development of turnkey or bespoke architectural solutions — wall panels, work surfaces for the kitchen, basins and fireplaces — which would showcase LCDA's eight years of research into high-performance fibre-reinforced concrete. The patented Béton Lège® makes it possible to circumvent the traditional problems of weight and porosity that render the standard material unsuitable. On average, the structures we have created are three times lighter than those using traditional concrete composites, while specifically designed processes applied to the surfaces make them stain and wear resistant. A year after the launch of Concrete Fab, we became the "editors" of the Concrete Collection, which is currently made up of three pieces — a table, a lamp and a set of shelves — but this will be broadened once we have included the work of other designers who we want to involve in the project. The next two stages are still under development. The Concrete Hub will be a blog specialising in the development of the culture surrounding concrete, and will feature interesting designs created in the past (including in the field of art). The Concrete Lab, meanwhile, will invite young professionals to explore new production processes and come up with fresh ideas that could even be put into practice at a distance — it will be a form of virtual workshop.
Matali Crasset's lamp for Concrete by LCDA
Matali Crasset's lamp for Concrete by LCDA
Of concrete's properties, which one do you appreciate the most?
It's a material that lets you break the rules and do something totally different. The whole history of architecture proves this. You only have to think of the work of Tadao Ando or Oscar Niemeyer to see how much freedom it can give you. Personally I'm not interested in working towards small revolutions, but in finding a new logic and bringing it into a different context. Concrete is a very malleable material. It can seem easy to use, but it requires a high level of technical skill. Precisely because you can create any shape you want, thanks partly to the constantly evolving technology, you need more "intentionality" to take it in the desired direction: you have to make decisions and know how to develop the culture of concrete to create a relationship between the objects and the people who will use them.
The bookshelf,
whose form recalls the
vertebrae of a spinal column,
is made of Ductal®, a smooth
ultra high performance
concrete. The finesse of this
element requires a very large
volume of synthetic fibres,
which are highly resistant
to traction and bending, and
have the capacity to create
a molecular link with the
concrete
The bookshelf, whose form recalls the vertebrae of a spinal column, is made of Ductal®, a smooth ultra high performance concrete. The finesse of this element requires a very large volume of synthetic fibres, which are highly resistant to traction and bending, and have the capacity to create a molecular link with the concrete
With both the Fab and Collection projects, you've done a lot of work on the finishing. You haven't hidden the "rawer" or "more primitive" aspects of the material — in fact, this is something you've brought to the fore.
With the initial Fab collection we wanted to set up a strong link between architecture and interiors. The first Panbeton® panels are closely tied to the first uses of concrete: the surfaces preserve traces of the wooden boards that have been used as formwork since the 17th century, and the colour is the standard grey. We applied the same intuition to the three pieces in the Concrete Collection, because we consider the connection with concrete's original appearance as part of the design.
Detail of Matali Crasset's lamp for Concrete by LCDA
Detail of Matali Crasset's lamp for Concrete by LCDA
Do you believe the market is ready to welcome concrete in the home, bypassing preconceptions around the weight and quality of the finishing?
mc Currently you only find heavy monoblocs in interiors, but the technology now makes it possible to escape this trend and find another way. Let's take the three pieces in our Concrete Collection. The table, which for me is the archetypal object for a meeting place in a house, is large but light: the surface structure has a honeycomb core covered by a 10-millimetre layer of high-performance fibre-reinforced concrete. This design is made possible by the Lightweight Concrete moulding system, which allows it to weigh four times less than a traditional structure while maintaining high mechanical resistance. To create a conceptual link with large wooden tables in country houses, the texture of the surface has visible traces of the wooden formwork, but the resin finish makes it smooth to the touch.
Detail of Matali Crasset's lamp for Concrete by LCDA
Detail of Matali Crasset's lamp for Concrete by LCDA
The structure of the shelves is inspired by a tree, with the branches supporting the books — it's like a spinal column for knowledge. We used Ductal® here, a concrete with a high percentage of synthetic fibres, which makes it particularly resistant to traction and means it can be used in reduced thicknesses. The shape of the lamp is borrowed from the sound mirrors in Folkestone, England; it has an explicit connection with a purely architectural object and plays with the change of scale. In this case, the concrete finish is very fine-grained, which brings out the design of the diffuser.

Has the choice to use concrete led to lower production costs — and therefore lower prices?
That wasn't our aim. We wanted to create distinctive products, not cheaper ones. The cost to the public is roughly the same as for similar mid-range products made with more usual materials.

Is this because the technology you use is still in the development phase?
That depends on the size of the company (there are 13 people working for LCDA). Small-scale production structures have the advantage, however, of being able to work well in terms of the design and development of the company's know-how. Concrete by LCDA is able to give this material a new sense of naturalness.
The team of Concrete by
LCDA. The squad consists
of 13 people — including
engineers, designers,
craftspeople and experts in
composite materials — who
have worked under the art
direction of Matali Crasset
since 2011
The team of Concrete by LCDA. The squad consists of 13 people — including engineers, designers, craftspeople and experts in composite materials — who have worked under the art direction of Matali Crasset since 2011
This enterprise reignites the issue of the relationship between craftsmanship and industry. Is it necessary to focus more on artisan work and limited-run series?
Both modes of production have their own spheres and systems. All materials have both industrial and artisan applications — with concrete at least, the industrial ones are often not particularly innovative. We have probably gone too far down the path of standardisation and uniformity. I'm convinced the designer's task is to find a way of expressing the full potential of a material. This is something I feel more strongly about and it is achieved with diversification and research. We have to find new approaches and help companies pursue them step by step in accordance with their own characteristics and dimensions. Most of all it's the small firms that allow you to work in these ways and develop a global vision. I'm finding that the designer's task is not simply to design new pieces, but also to show the way ahead.

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