Thursday, November 11, 2004

The post-granite age


Thursday November 11, 2004

The post-granite age
* Concrete in the hands of an artisan or even an industrious do-it-yourselfer sheds its gray, institutional image and takes on color, polish and presence in a variety of roles.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

Berkeley -- In Fu-Tung Cheng's hands, a formerly cold, gray, rough material of little aesthetic charm is transformed into surfaces smooth enough to lay your cheek on, into lavender and rust and celadon-colored counters that dip and curve into sinks and basins, into a critical element of home design.

Concrete, the stuff of cinder blocks, sidewalks and freeway overpasses, is moving into high-end kitchens and bathrooms whose owners, like developer Wendy DeCenzo of San Francisco, are "way, way past granite." On the leading edge of this innovation is Cheng, whom architect Will Bruder calls "the master of the craft of concrete on a residential scale, bar none. Nobody even comes close."

Other artisans of concrete are finding an increasing demand for their work as well. In Venice, James DeWulf of DeWulf Concrete says, "Every time I complete a job, I get five more referrals. There's something about concrete that draws you in. You just want to run your hand across it."

Although granite has for decades reigned supreme in high-end kitchens, consumers looking to get creative are increasingly turning toward concrete. "Granite is going to continue to be popular, but people are looking for alternatives," says San Francisco designer Joanne Cannell. "Concrete can produce a more unique look. All counters don't have to be the same."

In former AOL Chief Executive Barry Schuler's Napa Valley kitchen, they're not. He recently hired Cheng to design his entire kitchen. "I wanted it to be a piece of sculpture in and of itself," says Schuler of the 500-square-foot room, built with concrete, stainless steel, bamboo, zinc, granite and cast polyurethane. "I smile every single day I'm in that kitchen, because it's like you're standing in a work of art."

But concrete isn't just for multimillionaires. Cheng has published a book and made an instructional video that walk everyday folks through the process of pouring their own countertops. He also manufactures NeoMix, a line of concrete mixtures and mix-ins.

Try this at home

Jeanine SMALLEY, 26, and her husband found "the ultimate fixer-upper" in Danville, Calif., last May and decided to build countertops themselves. After consulting Cheng's book and video and using a healthy supply of NeoMix, they hammered together a mold in their garage, then mixed, poured, waited, polished and mounted.

The process took nearly a month, and there were snags -- such as when Smalley, her husband and her father added too much cement to the concrete mixer "and the powder was sliding everywhere," she says. "Then we finally added enough water, and concrete just started flowing out, and I was trying to catch it with my hands."

But despite being covered head to toe in concrete for weeks, Smalley would do it again if she had the chance. "I love the fact that this was a creation of our own," she says. "There are some imperfections, but it's OK. It looks fabulous."

DeCenzo decided that she wanted concrete countertops in her new San Francisco penthouse, and she turned to Cheng. "My philosophy," says DeCenzo, "is that when you run into great designers, you let them do their thing." She loosed the master and his team on the 4,700-square-foot space, with few restrictions, and the result is pure Cheng: warm, deep, earthy-toned concrete floors and countertops inlaid with semiprecious stones, fossils and shiny rows of copper. Bamboo walls and cabinets. An oversize concrete hearth in the living room. A kitchen wrought with concrete, but also stainless steel, wood, plaster and handmade tile.

"Architects and designers have been combining materials for years, but Cheng breaks all the rules," says DeCenzo, in the way he uses materials. He lays granite tiles upside-down sometimes. He cuts patterns into plaster as it dries. In DeCenzo's guest bathroom, faucets above the sink protrude from a concrete backsplash that looks as if it's covered with shattered glass, but the surface is smooth.

"It's about making accidents happen, but keeping it so the glass won't slough off," Cheng says when he arrives, dressed in black slacks and a turtleneck. He poured the backsplash, he explains, covered it with glass, then drilled through until the bit hit the back of the mold, and bang! The glass shattered but the surface remained intact.

"To me, that's what's fun," says Cheng. "The ultimate freedom is to respond in the moment to what's going on.... Now I have all these tools in my arsenal. I'm always looking for new ones."

Accidents and serendipities have always informed Cheng's design, his art. He rarely tosses things and starts over. He studies unintended results, learns how to replicate and control the processes that produced them. He admits a mistake to DeCenzo.

"I guess I should tell you this, because it's in my next book," Cheng says, smiling. He walks toward the focal point of the living room, the blue-gray wall and countertop striated with green that serves as an elevated hearth. A few minutes before, DeCenzo had praised this installation as an example of Cheng's genius. Now she listens as the designer tells her about everything that went wrong.

The plan was to pump concrete up from the street and pour it into the form in place. Cheng told his workers to protect the form with plastic -- any nicks or tears in the mold transfer to the concrete's surface -- but the wet concrete spewed from the hose so quickly and with such force that it pulled the plastic into the mixture, "sucked it in like a sea gull into a jet engine," Cheng says. "They were desperately trying to pull it out of the concrete, but it tumbled inside and trapped air."

The result was a disaster, a surface marred by deep gullies and covered in melted painter's plastic.

Instead of tearing out the bad pour, Cheng studied its cratered surface. He used a blowtorch to burn out the plastic. Then he filled in the holes with rocks and green-tinted cement, and sanded and polished until the wall and countertop were smooth -- hence the striations that turned a simple concrete surface into a piece of art. Ruin first, then salvation.

Echoes of his past

There is a history that's ingrained in each Cheng design, that informs each accidental innovation. Rub your hands over the contours of any Cheng creation and, know it or not, you are invoking a Los Angeles evening in 1954....

It was already dark when the Cheng family climbed out of their Nash Rambler and carried empty rice sacks down to the Los Angeles River. Fu-Tung was only 7, but he clasped his flashlight and followed his mother and four older brothers onto the banks below, where they quietly filled the bags with sand and hauled them away. In the days following they collected thousands of smooth, round pebbles from Redondo Beach, and stockpiled the sand and pebbles at their farmhouse in the Valley. The Chengs were making concrete to pour themselves a driveway.

If Cheng could shout back to himself and his mother and brothers, standing outside in the midday sun mixing concrete in a wheelbarrow, he would explain that beach pebbles are too smooth and uniform to work effectively as aggregate, and that using more sand and pebbles and less cement powder isn't the best way to cut cost.

Or maybe the memory is too sweet to interrupt. As Cheng writes in the acknowledgments to his first book, "Concrete Countertops" (2002), he will never forget "the sound that driveway made when we drove over it for the first time." It sounded like crunching potato chips.

Cheng is not an architect, although he employs three, and what he knows of construction he mostly taught himself. It would be easy to assume that Cheng fell in love with concrete while tiptoeing toward the L.A. River with his brothers. But that is not the case. After pouring that ill-fated driveway, it would be years before Cheng would fool with concrete again.

"In tai chi, when you do sparring, you can't ever have the notion that you're going to take someone down," says Cheng, sitting on a black couch in his Albany, Calif., living room. "It's almost like an accident. Like you dropped some keys and you catch them."

This modest Schindler-esque bungalow has been Cheng's accidental laboratory for 34 years -- it is the confluence of happenstance and hard work. No building material here is simply a material: Each concrete countertop, each polished floorboard, each inch of plaster is linked by memory to the circumstances that shaped it. As Cheng recalls the story of his house, he is also telling his story.

It was 1973 when he saw the flier at a local health food store: "Albany's Finest Victoriana," it read. "Squirrels, raccoons, a well. Death of my love makes it a drag to continue." The price was $16,500 -- about 16 times what Cheng had in the bank -- but when you're young and you have nothing, anything seems possible. He jotted down the address and hopped on his Vespa. What he saw was less a house, he remembers, than a ramshackle heap. He turned and putt-putted away, but in a second the screen door flew open and the 50-year-old owner chased Cheng down the street.

Five minutes of convincing, and Cheng was taking the tour. "It was terrible," he remembers. "There were rats. I tried not to touch anything." Some rooms had dirt floors -- the owner had torn out rotting boards and hadn't replaced them. The kitchen floor seemed straight out of a carnival house: dozens of mismatched slabs of particleboard had been cobbled together, and the effect was "like walking on some rocky surface," Cheng says.

A week later Cheng decided it was too good a deal to pass up. He borrowed the down payment from his businessman brother -- the only brother who isn't an artist. And two years after graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in fine art, Cheng began to remodel. He knew the smart move would be to tear the wreck down and start anew. But he had no money, no job. "It was going to be my house," Cheng says. "So I started working on it."

The dirt floors and uneven kitchen would have to wait. He was inspired by a Greene & Greene house on the Berkeley campus -- "I loved the way they did the roof beams," Cheng remembers. So he spent his last dollar on the front roof eaves and a new redwood gutter.

For money, Cheng became, an expert at modifying and repairing Vespas. "Then I'd reel home at about 1 o'clock," Cheng remembers, "take a nap and start working on the house at about 2:30." He would work until dark. He kept to this routine for the next 10 years.

To learn new building techniques, Cheng wandered onto construction sites and asked if he could watch. For materials, he would scour the local salvage yards and offer to haul away scraps from demolition sites. When the city of Berkeley tore down Willard Junior High School, the gymnasium floorboards became his living room floor. When the Navy abandoned Treasure Island, Cheng salvaged lumber from military bungalows and used it to rebuild the rear of his house.

Learning by doing

Cheng grew confident enough to hang a sign in the local tai chi studio advertising his skills in "carpentry, plumbing and electrical." Before he had the chance to redo his own kitchen -- for the time being, he covered the floor with Astroturf -- a cousin hired Cheng to design his kitchen. "What seduced them was my drawing," says Cheng. "But once I had the drawing, then I had to build it." Next, Cheng used his sketches to win over a Berkeley professor. And it was in designing this kitchen that Cheng again encountered concrete.

"We did a sink and had to go through a long, elaborate process to waterproof it," Cheng remembers. "That was the first time I realized that maybe I could do something with concrete." For the next sink he designed, Cheng built a mold, mixed and poured concrete, waited for it to dry. He planned to tile the sink, but the shape he pulled from the mold was smooth and beautiful in its own right. Cheng was hooked; he began to experiment with concrete by adding fiber for strength and pigment for color, by changing the ratio of ingredients to create distinctive effects, by hammering together elaborate molds.

Cheng's early work in concrete coincided with Santa Monica architect David Hertz's development of a lightweight concrete called Syndecrete, and the two are friends . Hertz's work has an environmentally sensitive point of view. "I wasn't happy with the existing choices, petrochemical plastics or ceramics and polished stones," Hertz said.

Cheng Design (www.cheng now employs 20 designers, architects, fabricators, marketers and crew. Once known mostly for kitchen countertops, Cheng is increasingly asked to carry over his unique materials and design sense to whole interiors and exteriors. He has designed dozens of bathrooms and kitchens nationwide -- and six entire houses. He hates being typecast as the "king of countertops" -- he wants to be known for his larger projects as well -- but he will admit that the anti-granite movement has been good for him.

When author Terry McMillan burst into his studio in 1994 and told him, "If I have to see any more granite, I think I'm going to puke," Cheng drove her to his Albany house. There, in the 21-year-old kitchen of a once-ramshackle heap, he showed her a stainless steel sink ensconced in gorgeous gray-green concrete, raised copper strips inlaid to protect the countertops from hot pots and pans, an ammonite fossil -- Cheng's signature inlay -- and a custom hood, covered in what looks like engraved plaster.

"If I had found Fu-Tung earlier, he would've designed my whole house," says McMillan. As it is, he designed her kitchen, bathrooms and fireplaces, and the walkway around her pool. Oh yes, and her driveway. This one doesn't have the sound effects, but like everything Cheng builds, it has the history.

Thursday, November 4, 2004

On scent, we've barely scratched the surface


Thursday November 04, 2004

On scent, we've barely scratched the surface

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

Peek into the fragrant life of Danielle Roska. After waking up to the "fresh air" linen smell she sprays on her sheets, she slips on vanilla-scented slippers and heads to the kitchen, pulls a mug from her lemon-scented dish strainer and steeps a cup of tangerine tea.

Her unnaturally scented day has only just begun.

Roska grabs her strawberry-scented soap and hits the shower, moisturizes with "buttery raspberry body lotion" and finishes up with "mulled cider body cologne." Her car greets her with a fresh cucumber air freshener, and she toils at work with a mint-scented pen.

Back home, she moves between rooms known by plug-in scent as much as purpose: cinnamon stick in the living room, buttercream in the home office, and Macintosh apple in the bedroom. "As I'm getting into bed, I put on cookies and cream foot cream," says Roska, the 27-year-old creator of the 16-month-old retail website

Scented products are increasingly dominating our homes, our cars and our lives.

"Scent is absolutely one of the key driving forces of today," says Marshal Cohen of the market research firm NPD Group. "We're seeing it enter into many businesses. In the apparel and cosmetic industries, in home furnishings, accessories, food, the auto industry.... The scent industry has -- forgive the pun -- not even scratched the surface."

Follow your nose and you'll discover lavender-scented rugs, eucalyptus-scented pillow-covers, jasmine-scented mattress pads and chocolate-scented socks. Who needs a morning cup of java when you can inhale the coffee-scented watch you bought on impulse from Or the Nokia cellphone with the coffee-infused faceplate sitting on your bedside table?

"Everything is going to smell, to the point where there's a conflict of smells," Cohen says. "Smells are going to start fighting each other."

Some would argue that they already have. Scents that soothe one person irritate another, and perfumed products, like secondhand smoke, wind their way into unsuspecting nostrils.

"This is more complex than the tobacco issue ever was," says Betty Bridges, founder of the Fragranced Products Information Network and one of a number of people nationwide who say they get sick when subjected to chemicals found in scented products.

Bridges lives in a world where a sleepover has the potential to turn into a giant smellfest -- if you don't forget your scented PJs. "I Need a Barbecue Man" pajamas are infused with a "tangy barbecue sauce" scent, while "I Need a Handyman" provides a whiff of cedar and "I Need a Lawnmower Man" the odor of fresh-cut grass.

Because scent recipes are considered trade secrets -- and fragrance manufacturers are not required to divulge the ingredients -- Bridges spent eight years trying to isolate the chemical that made her sick. A sympathetic fragrance chemist finally identified the ingredients and helped her solve the riddle.

Enough people have complained about scents to spur organizations such as Kaiser Permanente and Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital to adopt fragrance-free workplace policies. But Bridges and others say that even the good-intentioned have trouble staying scent-free: Many soaps marked "unscented" actually contain fragrances to mask the odor of other ingredients.

"I have a good quality of life, but the logistics of it are difficult," Bridges says. "I had to go to my kids' high school graduation wearing a respirator-type mask. The social isolation is difficult at times."

A few new products hint at the high-tech olfaction to come. Take the 2005 C4, a midsize by French automaker Citroen: "The C4's most exciting feature," writes Automobile Magazine, "is a cartridge that drops into the interior air vent and dispenses perfume...." Then there's Scentstories, a home fragrance machine released in August by Procter & Gamble that retails for $34.99 and "plays" scent cartridges that look like CDs, complete with individual "tracks." (The "album" called "Wandering Barefoot on the Shore" for instance, cycles through such scents as "Under the Palms," "Splashing in the Waves" and "Sailing in the Bay.")

Why has scent become an all-present force in modern life as well as a critical marketing tool? Because, of the five senses, scent is the least controllable (we can hold our breath, but not for long) and the most direct. Because the corridors of memory are lined with smells from the past. Marcel Proust knew this when he shut himself in his cork-lined room and conjured "Remembrance of Things Past" from the aroma of literature's most famous cookie, that tea-soaked madeleine.

Nearly a century later, science has finally caught up with Proust. Richard Axel and Linda Buck shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their discovery of a large gene family that produces the olfactory receptor cells in the nose. Neurologists and psychologists are fast mapping the pathways between smell and the brain, defining the relationship between scent and cognition -- some are even studying the functionality of scents, unearthing smells that they say can make us thinner, smarter, more productive.

Market research continues to demonstrate that consumers gravitate toward products that "smell good," and most industry analysts suggest that things will only get smellier.

In the future, "Odors will be used not just for their pleasure value or for consumer appeal, but for their functional value," says Alan Hirsch, the neurological director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. Hirsch says that he frequently fields phone calls from businesses wanting to deploy the functional use of scents in their products.

In 2010, says Hirsch, "your alarm clock will spray a scent to make you feel more awake and alert. In the kitchen, there will be a scent to increase appetite if you need to gain weight, decrease it if you need to lose weight. At work, there will be an odor to enhance your efficiency and creativity.... In the living room, a scent to reduce anxiety. In the bedroom, a smell to enhance your amorous nature, and then to help you sleep."

Hirsch's studies have found that a mixed floral aroma increases the speed of learning by 17%. This, he says, will spawn all kinds of floral-scented products to enhance learning -- scented test-taking paper, perhaps, or pencils. The odors of strawberry and buttered popcorn make people burn more calories, Hirsch says, so look for strawberry-scented treadmills and popcorn-scented barbells. And for dining room items that smell like garlic bread (a scent that has been shown to increase "familial harmony.")

But the newest research on scent, by Hirsch and by researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, shows little or no universal correlation between specific scents and emotions. Rather, we feel the feelings that we've learned to associate with a given aroma.

Odors that induce nostalgia are different for each person, and often correlate with how old you are and where you grew up. According to one Hirsch study, those born in America between 1900 and 1930 report that "natural smells" make them nostalgic -- trees, hay, horses. From 1930 to 1980: artificial scents, such as Play-Doh, Pez and jet fuel. For people who grew up on the East Coast, the scent of flowers; the Midwest: farm animals; the South: fresh air; the West Coast: meat cooking.

For Judy Brown, a 55-year-old freelance writer who grew up in Birmingham, Mich., the smell was always warm apple pie.

Here we encounter the first wave of postmodern nostalgia: Brown's mother didn't bake. The apple pie scent that bathed the Brown household radiated not from the oven, but from scented plug-ins.

Artificial though it be, the aroma lingered throughout Brown's most formative years. It faded into the background of her awareness, and this is typical -- as we grow acclimated to smells, they disappear from our immediate consciousness.

Brown's father died of cancer in 1999, and her mother succumbed two years later.

Brown and her siblings packed up and sold the family house. And then it was gone. What was gone?

That scent -- "it was the wonderful scent of apples and cinnamon. My mom's home was awash with the comforting scent of warm apple pie straight from the oven." She needed to find that scent.

"The rational side of me knew I could never have my mom near me again. But the heartbroken, longing side of me began a desperate search for anything that would bring me as close as possible to the umbrella of unconditional love that was my mom," Brown says.

So, did Brown bake an apple pie? Nope. She went online and searched until she found the very same apples and cinnamon plug-ins that her mother used. She leaves them activated 24 hours a day and keeps backups at the ready.