Make some solid choices
Once considered cutting edge, concrete has cemented its place alongside marble and stone
When I first met the interior designer Laura Farrell almost 20 years ago, she showed me a concrete table top. It was a majestic piece of furniture, ochre yellow within a mild steel frame. Many strong men, she explained, had been required to bring it into the kitchen. But once there, the table was on castors and you could move it across the floor with relatively little effort.
Then, it was cutting edge design. Farrell was fresh back from New York where she'd just designed an all-in-concrete Manhattan loft: walls, floors and countertops. Now, the material that Farrell pioneered in this country has found its place alongside marble and stone.
"I've always viewed cement as a cake mixture," she says. "Your basic Madeira sponge. You can add anything to it - pigments, metallic powder, mineral dust or stainless steel. I love its organic seamlessness and the fact that it's constantly changing. The chemistry involved in concrete keeps on going for years, so you actually have things rising to the surface over time."
One of the popular misconceptions about concrete is that it is a cheap material. It's not. A concrete countertop, for example, will be around the same price as one in natural stone. But it has all the advantages of natural stone too, with a lot more flexibility.
"You have to make sure you want it," Farrell warns. "Once it goes in, it's not coming out."
You can buy concrete in pre-cast slabs or have it cast in situ. As a material, it's durable, but not as indestructible as its reputation suggests. The level of stain resistance depends on the sealant used and the way it's cared for. If you drop something heavy on it, it may crack.
"If the surface tension is broken, it will crumble, but it can be mended - cracks can be sealed and the patina adds to the attraction," Farrell says. "It's a fickle material. You have to celebrate failure."
That said, the best way to avoid major failure is to hire an experienced contractor. "Concrete is not as basic as people think it is," Farrell explains. "A lot of specialist knowledge is required in the preparation."
Polished concrete floors require attention to levels, industrial grade sealant, and expansion joists in order for it not to crack. The material can also be mixed with resin, which gives it a "bouncy jellied rubberiness". For walls, micro-cements mixed with very fine sand look like artisan plaster. Concrete can also be used in a shower or around a bath instead of tiles but, once again, only by somebody who knows what they're doing. Celebrating cracks is all very well, but not when water is involved.
Concrete Design Studios is a specialist concrete contractor based in Dublin with projects ranging from floors and walls to bathrooms and countertops, but also table tops and desks. You can select a near-flawless polished finish; or one with exposed aggregates (think of the inclusions like raisins in a cake); or an industrial brutalist style that emphasises the natural imperfections in the material.
So far, so grey, but one of the advantages of concrete is that you can order it in virtually any colour. How about fudge or butterscotch, or cinnamon red? You could even have a concrete kitchen island in the yellow and pink of a Battenberg cake.
Like cake-makers, most companies that specialise in concrete have their own recipe, usually a closely guarded secret advertised as having near-magical qualities, or at least out-performing other formulas. With Concrete Design Studios, it's glass fibre reinforced concrete (GFRC), the glass fibres helping to make the mixture stronger than traditional concrete.
You can also buy ready-made concrete furniture, which is the speciality of the French company Lyon Béton. Their range includes a magazine rack (€130), and armchair (€590) and a flower pot in the shape of a nuclear plant (€90). Don't be fooled by the armchair. Other companies advertise 'concrete armchairs' on the basis of grey upholstery and a vague industrial aura. This one literally is made of concrete. So too is their Alps dining table (€1,990), a substantial eight-seater with a steel base. Like many companies that work with concrete, Lyon Béton has a secret recipe they're hanging on to with the tenacity of a granny at a cake sale.
Lyon Béton is also the producer of the Concrete Pipeline Stem Vase, designed by Bertrand Jayr. It looks just like the corner bend of a concrete pipe. There's a hole in the pipe, into which you can put a flower so that its stem rests in an internally fitted vase. The Lyon Béton website lyrically claims that: "When occupied by flowers, it is effectively bringing together two naturally opposing elements into one home for a balanced coexistence." Only the French could make concrete piping sound poetic!
The vase comes in three sizes (€70 to €120) and combine nicely beside an old-fashioned radiator. You can order direct from Lyon Béton, but some of their smaller items are also available from Lime Lace in the UK. It's worth comparing delivery costs as well as prices. It's heavy stuff.
Closer to home, the Irish company Ail+El makes concrete homeware ranging from coasters to planters (€6 to €45). The pieces are hand cast with decoration inspired by urban graffiti.
"I love the aesthetic of concrete, its rawness and its versatility," says Aileen Balfe (the Ail part of the business). Each of their pieces has bubbles and slight imperfections that are in the nature of concrete. "Most people working with concrete tend to eradicate these flaws, but I like to embrace them and let the material dictate the finish."
Another Dublin-based company, Hey Bulldog! Design, is run by Amanda Vencatasamy and Joe Hayden. Their range includes hand-poured concrete clocks (from €50), cheerfully decorated with splodges, speckles and drips. All their concrete is made from Ecocem, an Irish made low carbon cement made using waste and recycled material from the making of iron. Small concrete items should be treated like ceramic. They break if they fall.
Decayed concrete has its own bleak industrial aesthetic. If that's your bag, Wallsauce has a range of wallpaper that looks like aged, distressed, or mouldy concrete (from €37 per metre). My favourite of these is a pink concrete wallpaper complete with cracks. In the real world, pink concrete is problematic. The colouration is called efflorescence and happens when the chemicals in the concrete react with those in the plywood form. It's not what you'd want within your building, but in wallpaper form, it's actually rather beautiful.
See laurafarrell.ie, wallsauce.com, lyon-beton.com, concretedesignstudios.ie, heybulldogdesign.com, ailandel.com.