This Self-Taught Designer Shakes Up Everything You Know About Concrete

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By Aileen Kwun / Published by Dwell
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Fu-Tung Cheng speaks about concrete, the craft of building, and how his new material offering—ShapeCrete—is an accessible tool for all.

Known for his innovative use of concrete in residential buildings, kitchens, interiors, and products, Fu-Tung Cheng has run his independent practice in Berkeley, California, for more than 30 years. Now heading three companies—CHENG Design, CHENG Products, and CHENG Concrete—the autodidact, designer, and author has just launched a new type of bendable, pourable concrete called ShapeCrete, which allows users to experiment with the material on an unprecedented, intimate scale.

“Materials can express certain things, and you try to bring out those expressions in using them. That was my basis for starting: to understand a structure, what materials it’s made from, and how it’s put together.”—Fu-Tung Cheng, designer

You came into architectural work through working on a kitchen countertop in your own home. 

Fu-Tung Cheng’s own home kitchen, which he designed and fabricated in 1985, featured an integrated solid concrete countertop and launched his career for custom concrete fabrication, which he specializes in to this day.

I’m not a trained architect—I really just come from a background of hands-on work. It’s going back to my roots of doing, of starting everything myself. That very first project I did was on a little shack that I bought (then sold 45 years later). I made a concrete countertop for and by myself, the mold included. Gradually, as people began to see a little bit of this interior work I was doing, I gained some notoriety for that, and started doing more design projects and commissions using concrete. 

A fabric-shaped bowl, made by hand in just 20 minutes and cured for two days, shows one of ShapeCrete’s many applications.

What drew you to work with concrete, specifically?

It comes from my background as an artist and sculptor, in which you’re relating to the outcome, relative to the material. Concrete was the easiest, cheapest thing, and I knew how to use it a bit from sculpture class.  

It also helped change a paradigm. Before, the kitchen space was long dictated by premanufactured products that you would specify and put in, and could only be customized to an extent. Once you get into using concrete, though, you can pour walls. It’s fluid, it’s sculptured, and gives an earthiness and poetic quality of mass and substance.

It’s a perfect material.

How have you navigated the field as a self-taught designer? 

Having studied fine art in school, I find design and building lends itself pretty strongly to the connection between the hand and the doing. I’d see other people’s construction plans and say, "Oh, this is drafting!" At the time, in the 1980s, CAD was just starting—everything was still on paper. 

It seems the launch of ShapeCrete will invite others to feel that hands-on connection to craft and making.

Absolutely. It has really been formulated to sculpt, to pour, and to make smaller-scale things—and it can also be used, by the way, as a repair product. I love that somebody can work from an apartment, on their kitchen table, with ShapeCrete, whereas, with ordinary concrete you’d need a full-on garage. It’s a bit like PlayDoh for adults, basically. All we are trying to do is jump-start imaginations.