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Solid Expressions

Berkeley designer Fu-Tung Cheng turns concrete into art


Concrete guru Fu-Tung Cheng would love to design your home—but first you’ll have to get him up off the floor. You see, once Cheng gets started talking about concrete, he gets his whole body into the act, gesticulating wildly, even getting down on his hands and knees on the smooth surfaces of his Berkeley studio.

"People usually think of concrete as what you scrape your knee on when you fall down," he says, rubbing a floor he’s made as slick as a satin sheet. "But it can be inviting to the touch. That’s what’s so ironic."

That juxtaposition between common perception and what Cheng can do with the mixture of rock, water, and cement powder has done a lot to drive the designer to explore using concrete in the home.

Since the day 20 years ago when he whipped up an interesting kitchen for a client with a modest budget, Cheng has been enthralled with the material’s versatile qualities. He finally put his discoveries down on paper in 2002’s Concrete Countertops.

While that book became a must-read for home builders and home dreamers, it still shared only a part of what Cheng was doing. Earlier this year, he let his audience in on the rest of the story with Concrete at Home, which shows the designer working the organic material—sometimes spiced with fossils and acid dyes—into floors, walls, and fireplaces in homes across the Bay Area, including some next door in Danville and Moraga.

The book can only help cement Cheng’s reputation, which is already pretty solid—thanks to the Countertops book, well-received home designs, and a signature line of kitchen hoods. The curves and textures of his work make sense when you learn that Cheng, the son of a Walt Disney color artist, was originally trained as a painter and sculptor. As he puts it, "[My work with] concrete is merely an expression of my desire to sculpt and have tactile, emotional expression with honesty."

Cheng’s brand of truth has won some pretty impressive fans. East Bay architect Robert Swatt loves Cheng’s concrete work because it becomes completely one with the project, "so it’s not just a product, like a cabinet or a bathtub, but part of the home’s design."

Concrete at Home, like his previous book, isn’t just for pros. It’s also a reference for do-it-yourselfers who want to liven up their homes with Cheng’s version of chic. "The most elite client can come in here and spend $25,000 on a countertop," he says. "But then Homer Simpson can build one for himself for $600. The craft is where the value is. I like that."

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