Mix Master | Fu-Tung Cheng sets his ideas in concrete.
Think concrete, and repaving your driveway comes to mind. For Albany designer Fu-Tung Cheng, who single-handedly redefined what can be done with the wet gray stuff, his love affair with concrete began 30 years ago when, fresh out of Cals Fine Art Department, he found himself remodeling a house. Some concrete hed mixed with every intention of tiling over it came out of its mold so smooth, it didnt need tileit was perfect the way it was. Since then hes made slurry into floors, patios, fireplaces, and even entire houses. He teaches the art of concrete design and has written several books on the topic, including Concrete at Home (Taunton Press, 2005). Chengs even found time to open a teashop, Teance, that showcases his concrete work. I caught up with him recently for a concrete analysis of himself.
Paul Kilduff: Youve become the guru of concrete. Has teaching become as important to you as taking on new clients?
Fu-Tung Cheng: The teaching is important in the sense that there is a message. Everybodys asking, what use is art? Everybody knows its very useful, but its the first thing that gets thrown out. Im at the top end of people who can buy anything they want and in the end, when theyve exhausted their consumerism to the last dollar, they buy art. And for those people, and I hope to be included in that group, its a focus on an organic, deep understanding of the importance of aesthetics and culture as a value.
PK: Hmm, yeah. Thats pretty deep.
FC: My philosophy is you inspire people to do their best. And you can do that by doing your best and saying hey, you can do this too. In the case of my classes were ostensibly teaching contractors, even homeowners, how to do countertopsbeautiful countertops just like we do and have been producing for 20 years out of our shop. And they expect, OK, Im going to learn everything I want to know about countertops. I set them down and I say its not countertops. Lets talk about design. Lets talk about architecture. Lets talk about kitchen ergonomics. And some of them are very skeptical. What people really want is differentiation, something personal, something custom. With concrete you can do something. You can really be expressive and its up to your imagination. I never started this to become a business person or to start a school or anything like that. The concrete countertops came out of wanting to find an expression that was not out of the box.
PK: You also encourage people to personalize their stuff. One of your clients grew up in Sweden and picked up amber on the beach. She incorporated amber into her countertop. Whose idea was that?
FC: I told her that if you have anything that you want to personalize this with let me know. She says, I love this amber I used to pick up as a kid and it reminds me of my grandfather. Another woman has a coin [collection]. Her father had this coin shop and as a child she went to this shop. She wants to put in a couple of gold coins or a real precious coin that reminds her of her father. Those are all possible with the concrete.
PK: Is serendipity an important part of your designs?
FC: Yeah, like that fireplace that we screwed up in the section of my book "Making Lemonade from Lemons." Completely screwed up. It looked like somebodys internal organs. I told my workers to protect the lining of the form with plastic and what I meant was thick, stiff plastic. What they heard was line it with any kind of plastic. So they went out and bought painters plastic. And to their horror the plastic was sucked into the form like a sea gull into a jet engine and what was left when they pulled the mold out looked like it too. The plastic had all wrapped and trapped air. It left these big voids and there was plastic everywhere too. And when they tried to pull it out the force of the cement gushing out of the hose just drove it further in. The funny thing is the owner had never known until the book came out. She came back from going out of town: Oh I love the fireplace. She didnt know that this thing was nearly a disaster. But it came out with a look that I would never have been able to duplicate or deliberately come out with.
PK: You mentioned granite countertops and it seems theyve become the tile of our age. Do you see concrete at any point in popularity?
FC: No, its just another material to use in the overall composition. This is like introducing a slightly new instrument or reviving an old instrument into an orchestra, right? Just because you have a viola you dont just shitcan all the violins.
PK: Do you see yourself as someday being the Bob Vila of concrete?
FC: No. Not Bob Vila, because Bob Vila doesnt design. Hes a spokesperson for remodeling, right? Fortune small business magazine did an article about the oven hoods I designed for Zephyr [a San Franciscobased kitchen ventilation manufacturer]. I like what they said. They said Target would have their Philippe Starck and Michael Graves, Zephyr has their Fu-Tung Cheng. Im sort of an American version of that Philippe Starck idea where you design anything. Philippe Starck will go design a hotel. A boutique. Ive designed a teashop.
PK: With all the things you do why open a teashop? Do you just have boundless energy? Whats in that tea?
FC: It was several things. It was my wifes [Lila Luc] best friend, Winnie Wu. She wanted a teashop. And I said hey, if youre going to introduce Americans to the best teas you better do it in an environment that shows the best design, because who wants to pay $20 for an ounce of tea (which works out to be $320 a pound) if its in this ordinary shop. So one thing led to another. If I have a business meeting I take people down to the teashop. Its aesthetically a very pleasing environment and its full of concrete.
Suggestions? E-mail Paul Kilduff at firstname.lastname@example.org.