Concrete countertops and furniture among winners in CHENG Concrete's 2009 Circle of Distinction Design Challenge

What do a sassafras and steel carder table, a massive floating fireplace, and an interior-lit stacked pedestal sink have in common? They are all made of concrete and they are all winners of CHENG Concrete's 2009 Circle of Distinction Design Challenge .

Fu-Tung Cheng announced the winners of CHENG Concrete's 2009 Circle of Distinction Design Challenge at the World of Concrete tradeshow in Las Vegas. The Design Challenge featured 12 categories including Interior Kitchen, Exterior/Outdoor, Bath, Integral Sink, Decorative Finish, Functional Feature, Water Feature, Furniture, Fireplace, Commercial Retail, Sculpture, ‘Funk'tional, and an overall Best of Show. Entries were submitted by CHENG Concrete Exchange Members, a group of skilled concrete artisans, many of whom trained under concrete pioneer Fu-Tung Cheng. Out of 143 entries and a brutal judging session, a visibly overwhelmed Keelin Kennedy of Barefoot Design in Chicago, accepted the Best of Show for her unique concrete, steel and sassafras wood table.

"Split log tables are not new," said Fu-Tung Cheng while describing Kennedy's project to World of Concrete attendees, "what makes Keelin's piece so special is how the concrete acts as a foil to the sassafras wood that flows like a river across the table top." Kennedy was also praised for creating something that was bold yet showed restraint and used concrete in a new way. Kennedy's win was the result of an arduous day-long judging process of highly competitive entries by award-winning Kitchen & Bath industry experts who concurred on not only the look and feel of the table, but also the difficulty of its manufacture. "The biggest challenge I had," said Kennedy, "was getting three materials that all have a life of their own to cooperate with each other." One of the ways she tamed the fidgety sassafras was with decorative and functional butterfly joints that melded the river of wood to the contrasting shore of concrete.

Cheng pointed out three recurring themes that surfaced from these highly accomplished entries. First, concrete worked well in a variety of very different settings and styles. Various aesthetic sensibilities were achieved by the pliable medium of concrete. "We had very modern entries that made use of concrete's monolithic feel as well as ‘arts and crafts' entries that incorporated etched concrete in traditional colors and styling. One concrete farm sink even featured an etched family crest."

Secondly, Cheng noted that concrete has "clearly become a serious surface material of choice for the home." "We have been running this Design Challenge for five years now and these artisans have taken concrete to a more sophisticated level, both with the material itself and in skillfully integrating it with other materials. I am encouraged to see the steady maturity of concrete craftsmanship and design sensibilities illustrated by the entries. I was genuinely impressed." Sean Dunston, winner of Best Interior Kitchen, managed to effectively balance the sheer mass and weight of his concrete peninsula with the thinner vertical lines of his concrete cabinet frame, creating an integrated look that pulled all the kitchen elements together. "The idea of concrete as a high-end finish material is still a sort of novelty to those who have not been exposed to it in that context, but this project was not a compromise. If they wanted the piece carved out of solid blocks of marble, they could have made it happen, but the feel would be different from what the client wanted," said Dunston who also won Best Decorative Finish and Best Functional Feature.

The third theme that emerged from the body of work was that concrete is timeless. There's no mistake that our artisans used words like ‘river,' ‘flow,' ‘life,' and ‘breathing' to describe their concrete projects. Cheng explains, "Concrete is a malleable, natural material, that even when cast in permanence continues to have a life of its own. One would be hard-pressed to look at these concrete projects and pinpoint them to a certain time period. They transcend time and fashion." Randy Rand, winner of Best Water Feature, created a sink that combined a very modern, dramatically slanted sink shelf with classic tiles and faucets. Cheng noted that "it was a bold mixture of the ancient and the modern that concrete, by it's very make-up of stone and sand, was able to cement together seamlessly. That sink would not be out of place in any bath house in Rome." The timelessness of Rand's project was evident in his client's praise of his project; she called it "a work of art."

World of Concrete attendees were surprised by the very low raw material cost for these very sophisticated concrete projects. According to CHENG Concrete Co-President Mike Heidebrink, these projects can be built for as little as $7.71 per square foot using CHENG Concrete Countertop products. "Of course there is plenty of design and construction labor necessary to achieve these advanced projects, but more and more contractors are finding themselves with extra time on their hands and concrete projects of this caliber offer a high return," says Heidebrink. In addition, this price point was a big hit with the DIYers taking in the show. One retired couple from Colorado was inspired to finally start their own concrete countertop. "We have been thinking about this for a year and we have gotten so many ideas by looking at these challenge winners and since we have more time than money right now, we are finally going to get started!"

Judges for the Circle of Distinction Design Challenge included Cheng, Lilley Yee, principal of Lilley Yee Interiors and award-winning interior designer, and MaryJo Camp, National Vice President of Marketing for FBA Holdings and 30-year veteran of the Kitchen and Bath Industry. Entries were judged on the following criteria: Elements & Principles of Design, Design Planning, Innovative Concept/Forward Thinking, Creativity/Innovation, Use of Color, Presentation, Innovative Forming Techniques, and Client Problem Solving.