Try a cork accent
Capable of being turned into everything from fabric to wallcoverings, flooring, furniture and even sinks and baths, cork is no longer solely associated with pin boards and wine bottles.
If you've holidayed in the Algarve, you've certainly passed a shop dedicated to trinkets, handbags and accessories made from this robust material - not surprisingly, most of the world's cork comes from Portugal. Before you start thinking of twee souvenirs from your sun holiday, however, recent developments are proving cork to be one of the most sought-after materials in interiors and product design.
This year, more than ever, sustainability is moving into the mainstream for homeowners, small businesses and large companies, who are making it a priority - clearly, a rise in cork's popularity isn't just a coincidence.
The beauty of the cork oak tree is that the bark can be stripped from its trunk, without damaging the tree, making it an attractive material for the eco-conscious as well as those in search of smart interiors.
"As a natural material, cork isn't just sustainable, but comes with practical advantages too," says Paulo Rocha, of Granorte (granorte.co.uk), a Portuguese company that specialises in products made from the material. It is sound-absorbent, insulating and soft-to-the-touch, all of which make it an ideal addition to the home. It is fire-retardant and waterproof too.
"Cork has always been a wonderfully versatile material, but we previously lacked the technology and understanding to realise this versatility to its full potential," says Paulo.
Cork can last up to 50 years when used in interiors, thanks to its resilience to pressure, which makes it well-suited to high traffic areas such as flooring. Latest technologies can create long-lasting furniture, as well as upholstery that's soft and inviting.
Safety and sustainability aside, one of the most appealing aspects of cork is its beautiful natural look. So, if your home is looking for that added element of the outdoors, cork complements indoor plants, wood surfaces and rough and ready finishes, wonderfully.
Jenny Esperito Santo, of Mind The Cork (mindthecork.co.uk), certainly puts cork's usability to the test, creating a multitude of accessories and soft furnishings. "All of our products are made with natural cork sourced from Portugal; and handmade in our studio. More recently we have turned our attention back to our first love - cork composite - and we're working on some very exciting projects including the recently launched cork vessels and small furniture pieces," she says.
On the high street, IKEA, Harvey Norman and Irish-owned stores like Makers and Brothers, and Designist are cottoning on to cork's advantages, bringing it right up-to-date and providing a contemporary, long-lasting accent to the home.
Anna Shelswell-White is editor of House and Home magazine