LOS ANGELES TIMES
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.
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
Other artisans of concrete are finding an increasing demand for their work as well. In
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
In former AOL Chief Executive Barry Schuler's
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
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
"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
It was already dark when the Cheng family climbed out of their Nash Rambler and carried empty rice sacks down to the
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
"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
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: "
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
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
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
"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
Cheng Design (www.cheng design.com) 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
"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.