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Ben Evans - "People are beginning to understand the breadth and depth of cork"

England 27/3/2020

Ben Evans, director of the London Design Festival, is very familiar with cork. He highlights cork’s intrinsic sustainability, and also its expressiveness. In 2013, in partnership with Corticeira Amorim, he coordinated the project that took cork to the Victoria & Albert museum, in London, in an installation created by FAT studio. In this interview, Evans argues that the future of cork depends on the combination of science, creativity and entrepreneurship. And the need for good communication.

Do you recall your first interaction with cork?

Well, my first interaction with cork was because we had cork tiles in my bathroom at home. In the UK in the 1970s it become quite a kind of fashionable surface material that you could use in different rooms. And I remember we had a very dark brown one and it was often quite warm to walk on and comfortable, and that was in one of the bathrooms in our house for many years. In my family house.
That was the first time I was even aware it could be used in different ways than as a bottle stopper. And the next time I saw it I think it was through one of the shows you’ve done in Lisbon which my wife participated in, or it might have been the one before that, which was curated by experimentadesign.


Yes, it must have been the launch of Metamorphosis, in 2013.

Yeah, roughly, roughly. And there was also a show in Milan as well at the Salone, and I was just aware of the potential material for design that could be used in many, many different ways and there was an opportunity to do something much more creative with it than I had previously understood.


But between these two moments, the first contact with cork in your family house, and the shows in Milan and Lisbon, had you ever thought, in your professional life, that you had this magnificent material you could work with?

Yes, basically, we started the London Design Festival in 2003, and in 2007 we did our first installation. Actually, we did two, one was in concrete and one was with Corian®. That started a journey for us where we wanted to explore design and creativity through different materials. I was aware that it was becoming more and more important for designers to experiment and to express themselves and to find new design solutions through the use of different materials. So, it was always exciting to find another material that we could almost play with and see what we could do with it. And that was an ambition that I wanted to realise. I met Cristina (Amorim) and I met the Chairman, António Rios de Amorim, and I came to visit and it started a journey into our first project that we did together, which we put on the bridge in the VNA.

You said about that project at the VNA that it was the best cork floor you had ever seen. Do you confirm that statement?

Oh absolutely, because in a way that project was inspired by my childhood experience, because my memory of, and many people’s only experience of cork would have been as a flooring material and I thought, actually why don’t we reinvent that? Why don’t we rethink that and show what happens when we add the magic ingredient of design, what we can do with this material.

Amanda, your wife, is a big fan of cork, so I think that you two are great ambassadors of this material. Who is the biggest fan of cork, you or your wife?

Oh, I think I’ve done more than her actually. (laughter)

Amanda took part in the group show Metamorphosis and she did a piece, which was about interlocking pieces that, when you put them together, could create a whole kind of wall of cork. And I’ve seen it more often in a design context, rather than an architecture context. And I think she’s only done the one project, she enjoyed doing it very much, but in design terms I think we’ve only just scratched the surface. It’s just the beginning of a much, much longer journey and, as you know, we’re planning to do something together this year.

Well, I have a question about that. If you can say something about that new project.

Before I get onto that, the relationship with cork as a material and the relationship with the company is in my mind, and what we do is we try and find opportunities for the pieces to come together. And if we get it at the right moment, then bingo, we’ve got a great project that we can do. We can say something new and we can express it in a different way. So, I don’t ever really stop thinking that there might be an opportunity to do something again with the material. So, I keep an eye on it, I keep a healthy interest in what you’re doing and what other people are doing with cork.


You talk about design and architecture, and in fact they very close. So, which of these areas do you think has more range to explore regarding cork?

Well I think at the moment, design, because the way cork has tended to be used in architecture is as a surface material, you know, on walls or on floors. In design, of course, you’ve got a much wide of forms you can explore, and you’ve got different scales that you can work on and, at the moment, it’s more expressive in its application. And I think in a way, in architecture, it’s a little bit stuck as a kind of building material, as a kind of surface finish, and I think the material has much more depth and opportunity than that. But, hang on, one more thing, the relationship between the design world and the architecture world is impossible to separate. You know, the crossover between them is very fertile and there’s a constant exchange of ideas. So, in a way, to talk about them as different worlds is a bit artificial.


So, what I was trying to say is, do you think there is still some lack of knowledge regarding the use of cork in design? Or, in other words, some resistance to use it? Is that why you say there is a more space for cork to expand through design?

Yeah, I think we’re on a much longer journey and I think there has been some very interesting work to date, but some of the best work we haven’t yet seen. The more people who choose to explore it as a material, the more people who experiment in its different finishes and applications, the more likely we’re going to see some really wonderful things using cork as a material.


Well, that takes us to my next question. You know that we are now celebrating 150 years, and a lot of new things were made with cork that surely no one was expecting at that time. So, is it possible to see the future? I don’t mean the next 150 years, but the next 10, 20, 30 years, the new transition of cork in the aerospace industry, in architecture, in urban society, towards new forms of sustainability? What do you think is going to be the future of cork in this world that is changing every day in a big way?

Well, one word that you used in your question which is absolutely critical is sustainability. The great advantage that cork has as a material is that it’s fully sustainable. There’s a very serious changing point happening in the design and creative world where it has become increasingly difficult to do something that is not sustainable. So, the starting point in any new product development is to consider the sustainable dimensions to it, and what you have is a material that is 100% sustainable. I think that gives the material a huge advantage. So, the journey to go on, is on a very, very strong and positive start. The other thing is, I think, that people are beginning to understand the breadth and depth of it. What I learned when I came to Portugal to see, was there’s colour variation, there’s density variation, there’s application, there’s a science to how it can be used. So, there’s lots, lots more scope for cork to be used in different applications. So, what we want to do in the next 10-plus years is to encourage it to be used as much as possible because I think we may discover something on this journey that we don’t know about at the moment.


What kind of effort do you think we have to engage in to explore new uses and new solutions with cork? Should we communicate more strongly the characteristics of cork? Should we reach new markets, showing some of the benefits of cork to specific professional areas, like designers, architects. What can we do?

Yes, I think you need to be open to ideas, which I think you are, and you must continue to do that. You must be willing to build partnerships, sometimes in quite unexpected ways, because I think there is a science dimension to the application of the material, there’s a creative dimension to it, there’s an entrepreneurial almost business dimension to it, and partnerships kind of merge. This allows the material to be applied in a much wider set of ways. I think there’s also a very strong communication side to it, as well. I still think a lot of people don’t really understand the opportunity the material has. One of the reasons why we like doing these things in my festival, was that last year I had one million individual visitors and I want them to be excited by what they see, but more importantly remember what they see the next day and want to tell other people about it. If we can plant the seed in many, many more people’s minds about the material and how exciting it is and the many opportunities it has, then we’re going to make some real traction, some real progress on it becoming a much more universal material.


So, talking about the new project that you are materialising right now with Amorim. What can you tell us about it?

Well, we do a series of commissions each year where we’re trying to sell a new story about design, and there’s a number of ingredients in these commissions. One is an idea, two is a designer to deliver it, three is a partner to help make it happen and four is a location to put it in. We have this project that we wanted to do around an idea for a greenhouse. We’re going to build a greenhouse in an area of London called Stratford, which will become a new cultural quarter of the city, and we want to actually have a horticulture in this greenhouse. We want people to be able to visit it at different times of the year and to enjoy that experience. Which is why not only are we working with you, and Amorim, we’re also working with Kew Gardens which is a hugely important international centre for horticulture. And certainly the most important in the UK. I’m very, very pleased that they’ve come on board to partner with us and it allows us to make a really living, changing, breathing installation. That will be a new experience for us. So, I think that would be very exciting.


Ben Evans CBE Bio

Ben Evans CBE is the Director of London Design Festival, which he co-founded with Sir John Sorrell CBE in 2003. The Festival celebrates and promotes London as the design capital of the world and has inspired similar events in many international cities. It is an annual event involving 400 partner organisations and attracts almost 1 million individual visits.

As well as managing the Festival, Ben initiates, commissions and curates projects for the event, including an annual residency in the V&A Museum. In 2016 he added a new activity – London Design Biennale – where countries, cities and territories present design installations to a theme taking over the entirety of Somerset House for three weeks. He is the Executive Director of the Biennale.

He has been a Governor of the University of the Arts London, a Board Member of the Roundhouse, and a Trustee of Artangel. Since 2017 Ben has been Chairman of the Mayor’s Cultural Leaders Board - a statutory advisory group to the London Mayor. In 2010 he was awarded an honorary degree from the Royal College of Art and graduated there in 1989.

In the 2019 Queen's Birthday Honours Ben was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), for services to the creative industries.