A Crash Course on Cork: The Eco-Friendly Material That's Popping Up Everywhere

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By Kate Reggev
Don’t be surprised if this sustainable material shows up in surprising places, from cushioned flooring, to wall coverings, and beyond.

When we encounter cork, it's most often in the form of a wine stopper or an office bulletin board, but the humble material is extremely versatile and sustainable. In fact, cork is being used in myriad, inventive ways that you may not have considered before.

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Cork can be used as flooring because it provides both a cushioned, springy walking surface and resists wear and tear.

Cork can be used as flooring because it provides both a cushioned, springy walking surface and resists wear and tear.

What Is Cork, Anyway?

Before we dive into some of its applications, let's take a closer look at the household material. Cork is harvested from a specific layer of bark, usually on the cork oak tree. This layer, called the phellem layer, is composed of a hydrophobic (read: water-repelling) material that has unique characteristics: it is impermeable, buoyant, elastic, and fire-retardant. 

Cork works well on walls as well as floors, where it provides a tactile, warm surface.

Cork works well on walls as well as floors, where it provides a tactile, warm surface.

The cork oak tree is most commonly grown on the Iberian peninsula, and in fact Portugal has about 34 percent of global cork forests, and Spain has about 27 percent. Cork is considered to be a renewable or sustainable material because the harvesting of cork doesn’t require the cutting down of any trees; instead, the trees grow until they’re about 25 years old (when their trunks are wide enough, at about 24 inches), and then the cork is stripped from the tree trunks every nine years. 

Often, a floating floor of cork tiles is installed so that tiles are affixed to one another, rather than nailed into the floorboards. This allows the tiles to expand and contract with heat, making it ideal for radiant surfaces. 

Often, a floating floor of cork tiles is installed so that tiles are affixed to one another, rather than nailed into the floorboards. This allows the tiles to expand and contract with heat, making it ideal for radiant surfaces. 

Surprisingly, the first two seasons of cork harvesting actually produce lower-quality cork than later harvests; this material isn’t used for making wine corks, but instead for flooring, shoe soles, and other products. Cork oaks live for about 300 years, and so there is a vested interest in maintaining them and their cork production over the long term. Additionally, cork is a material that is easy to recycle, and cork oak forests prevent desertification in the areas of Portugal and Spain, where it grows naturally.

Cork works well as a shelf liner or cushion in high-impact areas.

Cork works well as a shelf liner or cushion in high-impact areas.

The Uses of Cork

But what can cork be used for, other than wine stoppers? Because of its versatile properties, it is now gaining traction in the design world and is starting to be used in creative ways, from furniture to travel accessories, and flooring to gilded wall coverings. 

With its natural texture and variation in pattern, cork presents itself visually as an organic, unique textile.

With its natural texture and variation in pattern, cork presents itself visually as an organic, unique textile.

Because cork is a resilient material and can be produced in flat, nearly fabric-like sheets, it has been developed into a range of accessories and housewares, from placemats to luggage tags.

Cork&Felt developed a line of accessories that marries Italian craftsmanship with Nordic design.

Cork&Felt developed a line of accessories that marries Italian craftsmanship with Nordic design.

Because cork is also a great insulator of both heat, cold, and sound, it is frequently used on walls, ceilings, and floors to create a quieter space. When it's used as flooring, its buoyant qualities mean that it gives when you step on it, so it's a great choice for spaces like kitchens, where you might find yourself on your feet a lot.

Wrapping the walls and ceiling of a children's bedroom with cork ensures a level of sound isolation from the rest of the house.

Wrapping the walls and ceiling of a children's bedroom with cork ensures a level of sound isolation from the rest of the house.

And, of course, cork makes for a great stopper, even for vessels that aren't wine jars. Because of its hydrophobic qualities, cork stoppers work on both dry and wet goods, and pair particularly well with wood because of their color palettes and subtle patterns.

These Dry Goods Vessels from Fort Standard were originally designed to be used in the kitchen to store various dry goods, from coffee beans to pasta. 

These Dry Goods Vessels from Fort Standard were originally designed to be used in the kitchen to store various dry goods, from coffee beans to pasta.