Composed of a series of floral-shaped side tables and coffee tables in renewable and carbon-positive cork, Clover is a stylish and playful execution of durable furniture, but it’s also so much more. Designed by the Washington-based design practice of Chelsea and James Minola, Grainand debuted in New York in Jean Lin’s design cooperative, Colony (on display until September 30), the collection weaves innovative materials and technological research while paying homage to nature’s resources. The highlight is an exhibition that harmonizes organic structure and substance.
As a climate-neutral certified B-corp design practice, expanding Grain into cork-based pieces seems appropriate. Biodegradable and regenerable, the material has a host of sustainable attributes, as well as functional characteristics that make it ideal for furniture. After researching cork since 2019, Chelsea tells us, “Cork is actually cork oak bark, so when you harvest it, you’re not cutting down the tree, you’re just taking part of it. bark and about every nine years you can harvest more. . The cork we obtain comes from Portugal and the ecosystem is not disturbed in any way during the harvesting of the materials.
Grain works with a family owned cork company, with whom they have created a rare dark shade of cork, made from discarded B-grade materials. In addition to lighter parts, Clover features “cork that is toasted; a kind of cooking to get a dark brown color,” she explains. “When you cut into it, it’s dark all the way; it’s not just a stain. The maker toasts to recovering the discolored cork that otherwise wouldn’t work for them. »
The contrasting tones allow Grain to work with cork in a way that captures the resource in its fullest expression while honoring the ecosystem. As the collection reveals, cork lends itself to furniture both functionally and aesthetically. It is hyper-resilient – so it can be used indoors and outdoors – as well as antimicrobial, antibacterial, lightweight yet stable and repairable. As Chelsea explains, “With wood, if you scratch the surface, there are things you can do to fix it, but it never really looks good. But with cork, if you have a scratch, you can actually use some of the material, break it down, fill it in, and sand it down. Because it’s already a composite, you can’t tell it’s been repaired. I like it for the longevity of one piece.
On the other hand, she says, “it’s just such a beautiful material to work with because when you cut it and shape it, it has this amazing texture. When you sand it down, it feels like velvet and has that lovely feel.
Whereas Clover rightly includes whimsical floral shapes, closer examination reveals more than a four-leaf structure. “They’re fun because they have this trefoil shape, but when you see it in real life it looks a lot more monumental, a lot more architectural. It’s because of the hardware. The cork has little blister marks, much like travertine, so it almost looks like stone,” she continues.
To craft the collection, Grain used a robotic milling arm to cut and shape cork in their 300 square foot studio on Bainbridge Island. “James started researching other ways to cut the material and became interested in this as an option,” she says. “The cool thing is that it can cut in three dimensions, so we’re able to imagine different ways of working with materials that we couldn’t have done before.”
The robot also allows the team to minimize exhausting labor and use their equipment more efficiently to reduce waste. As a team of just three, Grain invested in the new machine to help eliminate some of the daunting daily tasks, allowing them to focus their time on finishing by hand instead. “We think about using tools to make things more efficient. So instead of cutting things off the leg and then having to hand which is really taxing on the body, we thought about how we can incorporate tools that can make this business something that we can also develop with our bodies,” she says.
It is this fusion of robotics and centuries-old craftsmanship that allows Grain to innovate. While tradition and technology are often seen as opposites or binaries, the methodology of the practice uses both in a symbiotic way to explore their creativity and ways to make them sustainable. “James and I both learned traditional craft techniques at RISD. There’s a real romance and beauty to working with simple materials and tools,” says Chelsea. “It’s about wanting to respect crafting materials, being really efficient with these things, and wanting to respect the humans that work for us and our own abilities over time.”
Like many small businesses, Grain dreams of expanding, but not necessarily with furniture. Instead, their aspirations reveal how Grain’s philosophy is to view design, manufacturing, craftsmanship and technology as, ultimately, community and sustainable service.
Chelsea tells us: “James is a wilderness first responder. So, during the pandemic, he was working in many vaccination clinics and testing sites as a volunteer. We know that in the next 10 years the way we live together on this planet is going to change a lot. Making furniture may not be what we’ll be doing with our awesome studio in 10 years; it can serve our community in different ways. We can accumulate resources now through furniture crafting and the work that we do if we have to turn to—I don’t know—building temporary structures for people, we’ve put in place the skills and the tools that we would pivot that way.
Fusing tradition and technology, natural materials and organic forms, Grain’s new collection is brimming with a sense of unity. With a responsible design approach to quality, the environment and beyond, it’s no wonder that coffee tables Clover immediately feel warm and inviting.
Images of Ben Blood, courtesy of Grain