Crafting websites have hundreds of clever ideas for repurposing wine corks, from turning them into picture frames to making ornaments to using them as knife cleaners or storage receptacles.
The professional design world has discovered cork as well. There are beautiful examples to be found in furniture and home accessories.
Cork is the outer bark of the cork oak tree, found in the Mediterranean and, in particular, Portugal, from which more than half the world's cork comes. The trees are a remarkable renewable resource; the bark can be harvested every nine or 10 years for the life of the tree - most live to about 200. A tree in its prime, at 80 years old, can yield 440 pounds of cork. That's enough raw material to produce about 25,000 natural wine corks.
Cork is durable, lightweight, naturally insulating, fire- and rot-resistant, and has a soft, pliable quality. It can be shaved thin enough to be used as a fabric for anything from handbags to upholstery. In thicker forms, or layered over other materials, cork makes great furniture and building materials.
Philadelphia designer Michael Iannone uses the material artistically in a collection of striking sideboards. Geometric and nature motifs are coaxed out of differently colored and textured cork.
"As a green furniture designer, I'm always looking for new materials to expand the range of sustainable materials that are available," Iannone says. "We've always incorporated graphics into our furniture line - cork fits the bill as a green material and gives me a wide range of colors and finishes to create graphics with."
Vitra's smart stools appear at first glance to be wine corks for enormous bottles. They're light and portable, and would complement any decor.
MOMA's design store now features "Destination: Portugal," an exhibit of goods from that country's best designers. There are cork umbrellas, envelopes and stylish tableware.
Ferm Living has a charming set of cork place mats painted with a simple branch design, and a clever trivet fashioned out of little cork balls.
Branch Home, another retailer known for stocking eco-friendly yet design-savvy goods, offers a selection of cork trays, bowls and cutting boards in an array of sizes.
Target offers an attractive cork bath mat.
In home renovation, we're seeing more cork flooring. Warm, quiet and comfortable underfoot, cork floor tiles are available in many patterns and colors at a modest cost. Their resiliency makes them a popular choice for kitchens, bathrooms and family rooms. Check out Ecohaus' selection as well as Jelinek Cork Group.
For some great photographs and history about cork's production and use over the decades, go to the Canada-based Jelinek's website (www.corkstore.com) as well as the Portuguese Cork Association's site (www.realcork.org).
Simple Forms Design, the studio of Portuguese designers Alzira Peixoto and Carlos Mendonca, won the 2008 REDDOT Design Award for their cork bath collection, which includes geometric laser cut mats, soap dishes and even washbasins.
"Despite being such a traditional material, cork can be employed in very innovative and unexpected ways," the pair wrote on their Web page.
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1 Raquel Castro's Whistler teapot ($25) and teacup ($10) are made from earthenware ceramic and cork. www.momastore.org
2 Ferm Living's cork place mat ($33 for a set of two). www.fermlivingshop.us
3 Even the washbasin goes eco-friendly in cork as envisioned by Portuguese designers Alzira Peixoto and Carlos Mendonca.
4 Michael Iannone's deer-printed mosaic sideboard ($3,400). www.velocityartanddesign.com