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Filipe Alarcão - "Cork combines a series of characteristics that we find dispersed in other natural materials and that´s what makes it so special"

Portugal 31/3/2020

Filipe Alarcão - one of Portugal’s leading designers - has been involved in several important cork-based projects launched by Amorim, such as the Materia collection, which he coordinated, and more recently as curator of the award-winning volume, “The Cork Book”. From his first childhood memory of cork to his current in-depth knowledge of the material, he has enjoyed a voyage of discovery, that never ceases to surprise him.


What is your first memory of cork?

My first memory of cork is not curiously associated to a cork stopper, even though wine corks are an everyday object and therefore even more familiar. As a child I remember being in some period buildings in Lisbon whose walls, and sometimes even the parquet floor, were lined with agglomerated cork. That fascinated me and made me curious about this material. It seemed to be vaguely related to wood, but with a very different texture and touch. Only later did I associate agglomerated cork to the bark of the cork oak tree.


What do you consider to be cork’s main characteristics?

Cork combines a series of characteristics that we find dispersed in other natural materials and that’s what makes it so special. The characteristic I personally like to highlight, and that I think is unique, is the fact that we can use a natural resource that is produced from a living woody plant - the cork oak tree - without having to destroy it. In fact, extraction of cork once every nine years actually has an extremely beneficial effect on the tree’s growth.


You have been involved in several projects involving cork, from the Materia collection, to items for MUDE - Design and Fashion Museum, to “The Cork Book”. Over the course of this journey, what aspect of the material have you found to be most surprising? What has been your most interesting discovery in relation to cork?

Before I worked as the creative coordinator of the Materia collection with experimentadesign, I had never previously worked with cork or used the material in any of my projects, partly because the opportunity had never arisen, but also because I had a fairly limited knowledge of its potential. I only associated cork with cork stoppers and with agglomerated cork, that I saw primarily as a kind of final covering, a finishing material, rather than a mouldable material that could be used in other ways. Shortly after the launch of the Materia collection, I presented a work that was entirely made of cork, and developed with the support of Amorim, in an exhibition that I organised at the MUDE - Design and Fashion Museum, Francisco Capelo Collection. In this work I explored several characteristics of cork that I had discovered in the meantime - such as the possibility of working with the form by using solid milled blocks. Curating “The Cork Book” was a very important phase for me, because it gave me in-depth knowledge of the material, including its potential and applications in such diverse fields, and helped me understand cork’s overall production and commercialisation system, which is almost cosmological, and spans the ecosystem of the cork oak forest, the circularity of its transformation processes and the highly advanced technology embedded in these processes. My biggest discovery was this: a seemingly simple natural material such as cork is capable of generating such extensive research and knowledge, that is applicable in so many fields and this process has been developing since antiquity. In this respect, I believe that “The Cork Book” gives us a complete overview of this material, which was previously unknown to anyone other than those directly involved in the production of cork-derived products. That was the core challenge that Amorim posed to us, to which I think we gave a successful response.


You coordinated the Materia collection. What was the main challenge presented to designers and how would you describe the designers' overall response to that challenge?

The challenge that I presented to the designers participating in the collection was essentially the same as the challenge that I posed to myself, in my dual role as curator and designer - the ability to look at cork as a raw material for everyday objects, rather than as an accessory or complementary material. For this reason, each designer was asked to use cork as the base material for all the items, while admitting the possibility to include other associated materials, as occurred in many items. Secondly, it was important that new types of products were developed, which were small- or medium-scale, and produced using relatively accessible manufacturing processes. Each designer had to explore some of cork’s essential characteristics, such as its weight, capacity and resilience, buoyancy, sound absorption, thermal insulation capacity, etc., and associate these characteristics with objects and functions that have a playful and emotional dimension. These considerations were also taken into account during the research and selection process of the participating designers. We chose designers who we thought could explore these characteristics to the fullest extent.


Which applications of cork do you think are the most important and why?

Any application that represents, or leads to, technological, environmental or social advancement is very important, and the cork industry is active in all these fields. I also want to draw attention to the superficial use of cork as a mere visual element, because cork is fashionable and is found in so many low-quality products and gadgets that we see on sale almost everywhere. There are many new applications that are still at an embryonic stage in terms of research or production processes, that may be important in the future, and there is an entire open field of exploration for new paths and applications. While we were developing “The Cork Book”, I identified several areas whose application is very interesting, but that we ultimately excluded from the book, because otherwise it would have exceeded its length of approximately 300 pages. For example, I think it’s important to draw attention to what has been achieved in the framework of biomedicine, such as research that explores the aseptic and healing properties of suberin – a complex biopolymer found in cork bark - in products such as liquid dressings, or the use of cork by the cosmetics industry, through the introduction of very fine cork powders as an inert element in creams, in substitution of clays, given that cork has anti-allergenic properties.


How can we expand the potential of cork?

Further to my previous responses, I think we can expand the potential of cork by combining knowledge and research with the ability to formulate new ideas and new fields of application, together with the willingness and ability to implement them.


Cork is a 100% natural, recyclable and renewable material, and an important carbon sink. How can these unique sustainability credentials make a difference in today's world and in the future?

Cork’s inherent sustainability credentials are exactly the characteristics required to combat climate change. Cork and its entire associated circular production system is a wonderful example of good practices in terms of striking the right balance between nature and the manmade world. These practices can be replicated in other productive contexts and with other natural raw materials in future.



Filipe Alarcão - BIO

The industrial designer, Filipe Alarcão, graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts in Lisbon and the Domus Academy in Milan. After completing his Master's degree in Milan, he remained in the city working with Michele De Lucchi. In his studio in Lisbon, he develops his own furniture items, urban equipment, lighting, ceramic and glass projects for Vista Alegre / Atlantis, Asplund, TemaHome, Schréder, Larus and Loja da Atalaia, among others. For several of these companies, he has assumed artistic management of their product lines, and has also assumed this role in a Corticeira Amorim project, as coordinator of the Materia collection (2010), in partnership with experimentadesign. He oversaw the editorial coordination of “The Cork Book” (2018). Filipe Alarcão teaches Design at ESAD-CR as an Adjunct Professor. He won Portugal’s National Design Award in 1994, organised by the Portuguese Design Centre (CPD). Filipe Alarcão is also co-author of the new Museum of Contemporary Art in Elvas. Several of his projects are on display in the permanent collection of MUDE - Design and Fashion Museum, in Lisbon.