Corque Design: a New World Branding for Cork

1. Design as a research-driven opportunity for Cork
Portugal has one of the largest cork oak forest areas in the world, to the point that cork oak forests (Fig. 1) have traditionally been a social and economic vital element playing a decisive role in economic and cultural activities. It remains to this day one of the greatest and most important Portuguese natural resources. Cork is a natural material with exceptional environmental qualities: it is a renewable, recyclable, non-toxic and durable resource, with excellent physical and mechanical properties. Cork extraction doesn’t require that trees be cut down in that cork is naturally renewable, as it grows back in the bark of the cork oak (about 1 cm per year). The cork bark is harvested every nine years through a careful manual process, without harming the cork oak or the environment (Mestre and Gil, 2011).
The Portuguese cork industry has a large technological capacity in terms of materials and processes (APCOR, 2009), however this capacity is not being fully exploited nor does it take advantage of the eco-efficient aspects of cork (Mestre and Gil, 2011). It is still mainly oriented to the traditional products and applications (stoppers, flooring and insulation construction materials), which in the majority of the cases, no longer represent competitiveness and differentiation. Natural cork, granulates, composite agglomerates and expanded agglomerates are four of the most noteworthy groups of cork materials available in the industry (Mestre and Gil, 2011). However, the scarcity of technologies suited to design and a certain lack of information on this matter shed light on the need for developing a systematic work that could field the knowledge of cork as a material for product design (Mestre, 2008; Mestre et al, 2009; Mestre, 2013).
Emerged from this thriving context and anticipating the launch of Corque Design brand, the Cork Design project (designated as Design Cork for Future, Innovation and Sustainability)(Mestre, 2008) has been implemented in the Portuguese Cork Industry for the period of 2006-2009 by Lisbon based Susdesign studio in collaboration with the Delft University of Technology with the following goals (Mestre, 2008; Mestre et al, 2009; Mestre, 2013):
a) Incorporate Sustainable Product Design Innovation as a strategic factor in the Portuguese cork industry;
b) Explore the application of potential uses of cork materials and technologies in Design, through research and development of new added-value and proved eco-efficient cork products and solutions, thus stimulating companies to innovate with cork and at the same time, motivate designers to work with this material;
c) Create awareness to foster strategies and implement activities to promote sustainable product innovation amongst a broad audience (academia, industry, designers and consumers).
To meet the three-presented goals, a Design Cork Intervention Approach to stimulate the cork sector to open the horizons for advanced product design, was formulated based upon the conceptual framework of Sustainable Product Innovation, Action Research and Design Methods (Mestre, 2013). This combination revealed to be an optimal approach to cork product innovation, generating a great product portfolio and potential market directions that could “openly” inspire the next generation of cork products and those contributing to rethink the future of the greatest material sector in Portugal. This is the subject of a detailed article submitted to the Journal of Design Research (Mestre, 2013).
Within this Design Cork Intervention Approach, new thirty-eight cork product-prototypes of different market categories (from furniture to technological devices) were presented for the first time. Speak of a team of 50 designers (Mestre, 2008) who joined the Design Cork Project Exhibition, presented in Lisbon, in May 2008 at the Berardo Museum (located at Belém Cultural Centre) (Fig. 2) which received 13 000 visitors (in the first 10 days). The successful results of the Design Cork Exhibition defined the rising moment of CORQUE DESIGN foundation.
2. Corque Design: Vision & Strategy
Corque Design founder Ana Mestre together with co-founder Gonçalo Riscado, introduces a new brand concept: “Designing Living Objects”, which refers to the design of new exclusive and differentiated products made from cork with unique sensorial properties and exceptional environmental characteristics (Corque, 2009). From the Mediterranean forest to the world most well-known design stores, as MoMA retail store, Corque early succeed as a recognized world brand and a trendsetter in the field of sustainable product design (Vilar, 2013).
The vision of Corque Design is to promote eco-efficient and sustainable ways of production and consumption while positioning cork in a worldwide sustainable development movement (Mestre, 2008). As recently quoted in the International Direct Arts International Magazine, Issue 4 (2013) “this is a Portuguese brand with its own seal of quality. Environmental awareness, a vision of sustainability, the questioning of established paradigms and a search for new solutions. Any challenge worth undertaking involves a good deal of irreverence along the way (…) This is the spirit in which Corque Design was created, a project that offers design objects made from cork that is proud of being entirely Portuguese, from the raw material used to the talent that works it. Like any good venture, it has already secured its place in the market” (Vilar, 2013).
Along these lines, the mission of Corque Design is to commercialize new creative products and solutions based on cork materials and technologies, ensuring the use of eco-efficient principles in product development and presenting exclusive and quality cork products while satisfying the economical, environmental and socio-culture concerns of a contemporary sustainable driven society (Mestre, 2008). In this, Corque Design offers quality and creative eco-efficient cork products for the home environment – furniture and accessories, targeting a medium to high-income adult audience that prizes creativity, differentiation and sustainable conscious design.
Anticipating the brand’s mission, Dowdy (2007) wrote in the Financial Times weekend edition of December 8-9, 2007 that “in the hands of young Portuguese Designers vying to save one of their country’s biggest export industries, the material is being transformed into something rather more creative and contemporary”. In 2010, the international Monocle Issue 37 (Monocle, 2010) dedicated to the theme of “Global Style Survey” with a guide of the brands, business trends and buyers of 2010 stated that “the material has now catched the attention of the country’s designers, eager to find sustainable ways to make product for daily living. Since 2006, Lisbon based Corque Design has used the natural, non-polluting and renewable material”. In November 2011, international Wired Magazine selected Corque Design as one of the Sustainability Icons of the year, showing-case the brand product collection at the largest Wired store ever, in New York Times Square, attended by 566,500 visitors (Millner, 2011).
Though it is a design brand with a distinct identity rooted in the Mediterranean cultural region, Corque Design’s impact grows internationally achieving, in a short amount of time, a global diffusion. From Lisbon Design studio headquarters and strategically implemented in several international destinations, the brand is managed from a creative (science based) entrepreneurial point of view. The brand’s plan and communication strategy is permanently enriched by external advice of strategists, marketers, designers, production engineers and commercial managers. Four brand concept-values defined the Corque Design strategy (Mestre, 2008):
i. Design & Innovation – Design experimentation is a relevant drive to innovation in Corque Design generating different types of product characteristics, visual features and functions. It implies the study and implementation of new concepts for cork and advanced materials research & development which are combined with both traditional production capabilities and 3D advanced technologies using cork agglomerates and composites.
ii. Creativity and Cultural Identity – while Design is nowadays considered one of the greatest influential marketing innovation tools, creativity through design is the most powerful tool for differentiation in product design. Accordingly, this is one of the most recognized values of Corque Design, which counts with a group of diverse designers, who are encouraged to explore and translate their own individual and social-cultural identities into their design work.
iii. Sustainability & Eco-efficiency – the natural and renewable characteristics of cork, its transformation process with little waste and low usage of resources and the high eco-efficient results that it generates, present not only acknowledged environmental benefits but a high social-economic value when compared with similar products made of other conventional materials. Specific LCA studies, based on Eco-efficient value creation are made for Corque Design products (Mestre and Vogtlander, 2013).
iv. Quality & Exclusivity – Corque Design works on a small-scale production with both technological and handmade processes, having a rigorous material selection and a precise control system. The overall production criteria, account for the brand’s values of quality and exclusivity. These values stand side by side with customers’ trust and loyalty. The sustainable, physical and sensorial characteristics of cork, highly contribute to label Corque Design as an exquisite and eco-trendy brand.
Corque Design brand logo (Fig. 3) was design to be a graphical easy recognition of those concepts. According to the brand’s graphic identity designer (Oliveira, 2009) “the brand identity concept combines cork and sustainability perception with a sophisticated and contemporary aesthetics yet using organic differentiated elements target to an urban eco-exclusive driven audience”.
3.Product Design Portfolio
Corque Design explores the diversity of cork materials, composites and technologies as expressed by the brand’s Design portfolio (Corque 2009, 2011, 2013). The products created by Corque Design meet the characteristics of sustainability, creativity, aesthetics, playfulness, sophistication, eco-friendliness, uniqueness and quality; and they are targeted to a public who values these aspects (Pires, 2011). Corque Design product portfolio includes innovative furniture pieces and accessories, with fifteen products designed by a team of professionals that includes names such as Fernando Brízio, Sofia Dias, Pedro Silva Dias, Luis Pessanha, Toni Grilo and Ana Mestre (also the brand´s creative director). “Corque Design began by focusing on objects such as ‘puf fups’ (seats made of spheres), chairs, candlesticks or ice buckets. In four years, it has diversified, expanded and triumphed” (Vilar, 2013).
Puf-Fup design by Mestre (2005) (Corque, 2009) (Fig. 4) is the most iconic piece of Corque and it is the brand’s first creation with the purpose of exploring the sensorial characteristics of cork through the application of 2500 natural cork spheres, thus providing a sensorial experience as a result of the body’s direct contact with the material. The structure of the string that links the spheres turns this piece into a malleable seat, challenging the user’s creativity to adapt it to his needs and self-comfort
Lagarta design by Mestre (2011) (Corque, 2011-12) (Fig. 5) is a playful and very flexible and multifunctional modular seat. It is produced from black expanded agglomerate, which is one of the most eco-efficient cork composites, for it only uses one boiling process at high temperatures, allowing the cellular structure of cork to expand. This process allows for a small quantity of material to increase its volume. In addition, it changes the natural colour of cork to a darker tone, without the introduction of any synthetic pigments.
Mestre has also designed a seat named Puf String (2008) (Corque, 2011-12) (Fig. 6), a playful seat taking to the limit the plastic and visual possibilities of rubber cork (a special cork composite with natural rubber). The Puf String is made of a single rubber cork belt strip, which is fixed by joint screws. The wavy movement creates the final aesthetic language of this object, which can be used as a single unit or as separable modules.
Vinco design by Grilo (2008) (Corque, 2011-12) (Fig. 7) is a sophisticated chair with a natural feel, produced from a combination of cork agglomerate and rubber cork. This chair is named after its aesthetic form, which results from the creases produced in a cork composite slab and that enable a volumetric installation on top of a polished steel structure.
Wallcork design by Dias (2008) (Corque, 2011-12) (Fig. 8) is an innovative and unique wall covering that brings the texture of natural cork produced in rolls with vibrant visual patterns. This ‘wallpaper’ has low environmental impact coloration, due to the water-based printing processes that are used. In addition, the use of natural cork adds acoustic and thermal insulating characteristics, which fulfills an advantage point in relation to similar products made of other materials.
Corque Design collection also includes ten additional pieces launched in 2009 for the debuted catalogue of the brand. This is the case of Vine wine cooler design by Mestre and team (2009) (Corque, 2009), one of the brand’s designs selected by MoMA retail store in New York and Tokyo.  All of the abovementioned creations have been presented in exhibitions in several world cities and they can be better appreciated on the website and on the current catalogue of the brand (Corque, 2013).

4. Internationalization
Soon after the launch of Corque Design in 2009 (Fig. 9), the brand met its first approach to international markets. The first year results were significant and the brand soon started to be represented in European cities such as Oporto, London, Berlin, Milan, Madrid, Helsinki and Lisbon (Fig. 10). Outside of the European context, the brand was one of the selected brands for “Destination Portugal”, a MoMA retail store initiative taking place in New York and Tokyo. At the same time, Corque was being represented in Los Angeles at Touch studio. Later in 2009, Corque Design was invited to be represented in Shangai World Fair, at the Portuguese Pavilion (Fig. 11). “Early on, it crossed the border and has already reached dozens of destinations in four continents. Although Oceania does not feature in its curriculum vitae, having a loyal international public is a source of pride” (Vilar, 2013).
In 2011-12, a second internationalization phase began, taking Corque Design to East and West: it reached the US market with the brand’s largest international exhibition at New York Design Week (Fig. 12); in Hong-Kong (China) it was for the first time represented in commercial design stores, followed by Tokyo (Japan) and Dubai (Emirates) retail stores; in 2012, CORQUE DESIGN was showcased in Belo Horizonte, at the fourth Brazilian Design Biennale and soon in 2013, arrived in São Paulo Design stores and Rio de Janeiro galleries (Fig. 13). Along the way, international retailers and design galleries purchased small series productions and started to sell pieces from the brand’s collection (Fig. 14). Thousands of contacts have been made with a professional audience (mostly architects and interior designers) who is now the main follower and largest buyer of Corque Design, while international groups as Microsoft, Google and BMW are in the list of earlier adopters of Corque Design.
The world exhibition portfolio of Corque Design (Fig. 15) includes some of the most relevant world design events such as ‘Tortona Milan Design Week’ (2009), ‘Helsinki Design Week’ (2009), ‘Lisbon Design Show’ (2009), ‘Shanghai World Fair’ (2009), ‘New York Meatpacking Design Week’ (2010 and 2011), ‘Biennale International de Liége’ (2010), ‘Portugal Criativo Barcelona’ (2011), ‘Experimenta Lisbon Design Biennale’ (2011), ‘Most Salone Milan Design Week’ (2012), ‘Interior Life Style Tokyo’ (2012), ‘IV Brazilian Design Biennale’ (2012), ‘Portugal-Brazil Year’ (2013).
Additionally, a series of lectures and seminars have been given by the Corque´s founder and creative director to promote the scientific content related to the new cork products development and cork innovation. These included, amongst others, the Ecodesign conference in Japan, the Creative Industries conference in Helsinki or the Brazilian Design Biennale conference (Fig. 16). Participation in both exhibitions and seminars target potential international markets for Corque Design and have been decisive in terms of the brand international recognition, gathering media attention, public discussion and international dissemination.
There is a loyal audience movement that has been following the brand in different world locations, strengthening the proximity of Corque´s founders and designers to its audience. Ultimately, the global design networks used to promote design value and local cultural identity enhancement are contributing to achieve a stronger social design democracy. These design principles have been gaining force since the first introduced ‘Design technology for a better life’ Bauhaus doctrine and Ulm design philosophy by Maldonado (1953), who saw the design process as ‘a system embodying both scientific-based and intuitive-based thinking’, and finally by the social-ecological Design approach of theorists as Papanek (1972), Bonsiepe, (1978) and Manzini (1990).
Corque Design is today recognized as a scientific research-based sustainable design brand. Its involvement both in academic research and design practice (as a commercial operation) reveals to be an original and successful approach for the future of Sustainable Product Design. “Design must be an innovative, highly creative, cross-disciplinary tool responsive to the needs of men. It must be more research-oriented, and we must stop defiling the earth itself with poorly-designed objects and structures” (Papanek, 1972).
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