Skilled Artisans Balance Good Design with Creativity

What began as classes to gauge the amount of interest on the narrow subject of concrete countertops in February 2002 has progressed and evolved into a movement toward good design, creativity and craftsmanship for the whole home environment. Through teaching the techniques of shaping sculptural countertops, I've realized that my firm's designs and techniques have derived from designs of entire homes. Our design of kitchens and baths is not simply a matter of inserting concrete counters onto the tops of box cabinets.

In particular, our countertops are creative highlights in high-end homes where practicality and expression are valued above all else. Experimenting on kitchens with handsome budgets has given us the chance to use concrete with a host of other materials – some common, some not. Our design opportunities have been vast, ranging from whole houses to major renovations.


But no matter how we use concrete and other materials, we always use our license to design as a chance to be creative. In fact, everything we teach in class about drainboards, sink sizes and types, joints, mosaic inlays, counter thicknesses, dropped edges, cutting boards, and even wall supports, we teach with "good design" in mind.

Without this holistic understanding – an understanding of the principles of good design – I feel that the students will produce imitations, work that may be limited in scope and handicapped in creativity. But far worse, they may produce work that is gratuitously expressive – indulgent without grounding. That's why in our Advanced Countertop Design Training, I spend the first five hours of the first day focused on kitchen design and its relationship to counters. My goal is to graduate a creative partner through this exchange, not simply a technician or a misappropriated artist.

The high-end clientele Cheng Design has cultivated over the past 20 years demands unique installations. They want to deal with a knowledgeable, savvy design professional capable of conceiving and executing new concepts. As a result, they set trends that eventually become mainstream.

This is why concrete, especially, has become in demand. And I feel the concrete countertop market is at a pivotal point. Consumers, inspired by magazines featuring high-end kitchen designs with concrete tops, are eager to find the craftsmen of these published works. Simultaneously, many concrete professionals who install acid-stained and stamped concrete floors and other finished flatwork sense an opportunity to expand their businesses to include concrete tops. In fact, this could be an opportunity for dealers and designers – and fabricators – to expand their design repertoire and business at the same time.

However, like with any choice material or product, there is only but a window of time to pounce. It is my conviction that the consumer will quickly tire of concrete as a countertop material if it is simply used as substitute for any other flat-slab-manufactured countertop material. I've always believed that concrete countertops could avoid becoming just a passing fad, or simply an alternative to, say, granite or Corian, by being a creative alternative to both.

Without the artistry, the sculpting and the sense of integration into design and style, concrete countertops will fail to capture the imagination of the end-user as they inevitably discover the vulnerabilities of concrete – namely its porosity and propensity to stain. Without grounding in and understanding of good design, concrete is just porous stone.

Conversely, the craftsmen will also tire of the relentless assault of the by-the-square-foot-slab strategy, which can ultimately undercut any reasonable pricing structure.


The vision I offer for countertops – and for kitchens and baths as a whole – is a throw-back to the era of the guild, the artisan and the craftsman integrated with the tools of the 21st century – essentially an adoption of this idea of melding design and craftsmanship.

Inadvertently, I found the way to create the "timeless" feel in our work. It is one used by indigenous craftspeople and native artists, and historically by the non-architects who created Chaco Canyon, and the masons who built cathedrals: they took their time and worked with their hands. They were intimately connected to the design, to the planning and to the execution of their work.

Furthermore, I have an idea of how this movement may shape up: we are a guild of design professionals situated around the country. Concrete could be our medium of expression. Trained in the art of design, like those of us with concrete as a focus – and, in particular, the graduates of our concrete program – we could take on major custom projects, concrete or otherwise, from local architects and homeowners. On- or off-site, we can then cast floors, walls, fireplace surrounds, furniture, water pieces and countertops. We invent new applications with our knowledge and experience. We have teams of design professionals that gather for larger projects like movie productions. We create real value for our clients that they see as an investment to be enjoyed while it accrues "interest."

Meanwhile, we enjoy the privilege of the creative process as artisans, and reap the rewards as entrepreneurs. This is the idea I offer here, with a particular focus on concrete – but the same, almost too simple idea can be applied to other choice materials we install in kitchens, baths and elsewhere in the home. And that is balancing good design with creativity.