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An Interview with the Artisan

Interviewer: What’s the biggest advantage to using concrete?

Steve: Well, the biggest advantage is how creative and versatile it can be, you know, people always ask me, “What’s concrete like compared to granite?”

And I tell them, that they are two very different materials.  For one thing, granite’s been around forever – granite’s been used forever. Although I’ve seen it used very well, concrete has so many more possibilities. You can make it much more personal.
If you go into any kind of shop that sells other stone countertops, you’re limited to the kinds of stone they have in stock – whatever they’ve gotten from the quarry, whereas with concrete there are no limitations at all – the possibilities just go on and on.

For example, I use the Benjamin Moore color wheel as my color reference.  I don’t use Benjamin Moore paints, but I use specific tints made for concrete. I can offer about 2000 colors. And that doesn’t exist in any kind of natural stone. I also offer about 40 stains. Those are little bit different than integral colors – they have more of a bit of  a mottled look.

Sometimes it makes it a little hard to sell. It’s not like there’s just a
choice of say, twenty colors, and it comes in this or that specific thickness
and these specific shapes.

I just like to offer people choices and be part of the creative process with
them, for whatever the application is, you know, for the home, or the workplace,
or wherever the piece ends up.

So that’s one of the biggest benefits – the creative possibilities. The material
itself just has a beautiful look. It’s got a very tactile quality. When people
come into my showroom looking for something in concrete, they are constantly
running their hands over the surfaces, which is kind of cool. I love to see
that. It’s kind of interesting. I think it has something to do with the fact
that people don’t expect concrete to be as smooth and glassy – almost soft
as it is.

Interviewer: Yes, I noticed when I was looking at a lot of the pictures that I wished I could touch them while I was looking at them. There was one with a built in trivet, and it was really cool, you know, the juxtaposition of the different textures. It really did make me want to run my hand over it.

Steve: That piece that was done in the home of an interior designer.  The concrete is made to match her cabinetry. The cabinetry had glass doors that looked a lot like the glass bits embedded in the countertops. So they matched beautifully.

That was an idea that she had, to integrate a trivet, and she came up with
the shapes, like a circular star shape. So we found the materials to do it
with. They were stainless steel bolts, and they worked beautifully. It worked
so well in combination with the recycled glass and mirror. She was also very
conscious of using green materials, so to be able to use recycled materials
in concrete was great. It turned out to be a great piece.

Interviewer: That’s pretty neat. You can’t really do that with another stone.

This is probably a real rube question, but what’s concrete made out of?

Steve: Very basically, it’s made of stone, sand, water and Portland cement. That’s basically it. But once you start working with it in applications like countertops, we start to change it. There’s an art and science to mixing good concrete. For example I’m using materials that come from industrial waste, and I’m adding that to the mix.  So a certain amount of the Portland is being replaced by recycled industrial waste. It actually makes better concrete for the applications I’m using it for. There are a lot of different admixes that I would use as well, depending what the piece is being used for.

It’s sort of like baking – you add a little bit of this and a little bit of
that. Even in the shop, while I’m working I may look at the mix and think its
a little bit too thin or a little too thick, you need to add this or you need
to add that. So it’s really an interesting process. It’s not just taking a
sack of concrete and adding some water to it. That might be okay for a sidewalk
or a driveway. We’re doing a much, much more refined type of thing, which means
the mix has to be more refined as well.

Those are some of the kinds of things I like to communicate to potential customers;
that it’s very different from a sidewalk. Aside from the kind of process, it’s
also the kind of materials that you are using.

Interviewer: So in a sense concrete is a green building material?

Steve: Yes absolutely. The concrete that we produce is itself highly recyclable. That means that if you someday chose to get rid of your countertop (for some crazy reason), the concrete can be used again for a number of things. Recycled concrete can be used in new concrete, instead of mixing in stone, you can mix in crushed concrete. It’s also used in building roads, in building bridges – recycled concrete is a whole industry in itself.

And in our own shop, all the concrete waste that we get is all saved up, and
we’ll take it to a recycling center and they’ll use it for some of those things.
So we try to waste nothing. Even the materials we use to build molds with –
the wooden molds – we try to reuse as often as possible. So we try to reuse
everything and not waste anything in the shop.

Interviewer: That’s amazing. It’s really great that there is such a huge industry around recycling concrete.

Steve: There is – it’s incredible. And it’s very cost effective. It makes sense for the environment. Other stone doesn’t quite have that aspect.

Interviewer: I was glad to hear that.

Steve: Yeah, a lot of people don’t know that. On the other hand, there was the interior designer I did the kitchen for. She was very concerned about our materials and our construction. It’s something that some people really look at. They want to use reclaimed wood, old fixtures that they want to recycle, and things like that .

We just installed a piece, actually a few pieces, in this beautiful house
in Sagaponic, on Long Island. The entire house was made of reclaimed wood.
It was beautiful. So we were really happy to be able to add to it.  We did a number of bathroom vanities with integral sinks, and the entire kitchen as well.

Interviewer: I imagine that some of your clients are more artistic, or think in that way.

Steve: Yeah, it is pretty interesting. But a lot of people are hearing more and more about it, and getting curious, so you get quite a few calls for estimates from all kinds of people. We end up having clients who have a somewhat refined taste and get what we’re trying to do, and understand the material. That’s the most important thing – to be able to work with the client who is willing to go to the edge.

Interviewer: It’s not the first thing you think of when you think of countertops.
Like a lot of people, I might have thought of formica first. Okay, I would have immediately rejected that out of hand, but a lot of people wouldn’t. I mean there’s probably nothing inherently wrong with it, but I imagine that the kind of people who are looking for something as unique as concrete countertops to begin with are probably the people who are, like you said, a little more willing to “go to the edge.”

Steve: Yeah, it could be someone who might think a little more creatively. You have to have certain tolerances for concrete – you know, that whole idea of Wabi-Sabi, the Japanese philosophy that we’ve talked about.

Interviewer: Yeah, I’d like to hear more about that, actually. I think that’s fascinating. Do a lot of people in that medium think about that, or is it something that you’ve been thinking about for a long time?

Steve: Well, you know, it’s sort of part of the nature of concrete. And I think that anyone who works in concrete like I do must have thought about that eventually. You know, concrete – and this is something I always tell customers – it sort of ages. In my opinion it gets better and more beautiful as it ages. It gets this great patina to it from use and time.

For example, there’s a kind of Japanese pottery that’s done with very low
temperature firing called Raku, and it produces incredible looking finishes,
whereas a higher temperature might produce a something that looks more finished.
It has a duller look to it, a more unfinished look to it. Sort of like, maybe
it’s been sitting outside for many years and it’s gotten a worn look. That’s
something that I think is very beautiful. When someone gets something like that, that looks like it’s been aged, it melts into their home.

Interviewer: It makes me think of when I was a kid my parents used to go around to antique stores. And when they got it home they wanted to put it in a room. But when they looked at the beams in the room they were too slick, so they “distressed”‘ the wood. People spend a lot of time distressing or artificially aging things. It’s like worn jeans. When you get them new, they are nice, but they are so much better when they are worn.

Steve: That’s right. And it’s kind of fun that you can go out and buy used jeans.
I guess it’s a little like wabi-sabi.

Wabi-sabi is the ancient Japanese idea that,..let’s see if I can put it in
a nutshell…it’s the idea that something that has been worn out by time has
a certain beauty to it. To show it’s age is considered beautiful.  So that ties into Japanese artistic philosophy.

That’s basically what it is. I really like that. I just never liked that slick
look; it’s just not my sensibility. Although if we were to do an industrial
gray concrete piece, in a very slick, new, stainless-steel, modern kitchen,
the piece would look great. In juxtaposition to the slick materials it would
be beautiful. It speaks for the versatility of the concrete that it lends itself to both the slick and modern as well as the traditional, so that the character of the kitchen can effect the concrete piece, as well.

Interviewer: The more I learn about this stuff, the more intrigued I am by it. I always associated concrete with non-creativity, because all I ever really noticed about concrete is curbs and sidewalks. But to be able to take some resource like that and make something infinitely more creative than a simple (as nice as it may be) granite or marble countertop. And I love granite and marble, but we take it out of the earth and use it as a commodity.

Right now I’m a lot more inspired to go for something in concrete that would
mean something to me in the future.

We have this great home that my wife built before we met, and I’d like to lend something creative to the house (besides my feeble attempts at carpentry) at some time.

Steve: Well, come on down to the shop and you can help me make it!

Interviewer: That would be awesome. Don’t let me help too much, though – you still want it to come out looking great, right?