27 March 2010

Richard Holdschuh, an artist in concrete, talks about counters

Richard Holdschuh is a visionary. His Brattleboro Vermont company, Concrete Detail, is one of the leading purveyors of concrete counters in the country. Their custom work is easily the most thoughtful and precise concrete work I've ever seen. I met Richard through Twitter a few weeks ago and I learned that not only is he the soul of those amazing counters, he's also a heck of a guy.

I don't write enough about concrete counters and I asked Richard to put something together for me to start to rectify my lapse. He did. You can learn more about Richard and his company through their website, Concrete Detail. Feel free to ask him any questions in the comments section and I'll forward everything to him. Maybe we'll get him to come back to answer some of them personally. So without further ado, here's Richard.

Concrete started out simply as an alternative to wood, in my mind. Having been in construction as a carpenter for 20 years, I was looking for a means of moving in a different direction: to use some of what I already knew - to go to places I had only dreamed about. Being a carpenter in Vermont (along with half the population) often entails straddling a roof 35 feet off the ground at 20 degrees F (comfy) or chipping a half inch of ice off your framing lumber so you can build a wall (highly productive) or listening to tales of last night’s fight at the bar (heartwarming). Notice a theme here? Suffice it to say, I thought I could do better.

I searched for a trade, craft or product which could build upon the skillset I had developed and allow me a creative outlet which had been neglected since I was much younger. If it was inside a heated, organized shop with other like-minded creative types, it would be almost too good to be true. And so, after much research and soul-searching, the answer (for me) turned out to be what we in the business refer to as “artisan concrete”. What is that, you might ask? And rightly so, because it is still a fledgling industry going through many changes even as it begins to find its place among the more conventional materials. Happily, the media and design professionals in the US are now paying more attention to this upstart and consequently public awareness is reaching a tipping point.

The poster child for artisan concrete is the handcrafted countertop and this is the majority of our work at Concrete Detail, which is the company born of my quest. We create custom tops for kitchens and baths, many of which include sinks as well; we also design and fabricate fireplace and tub surrounds, furniture, wall panels, tiles, bar tops, vessels, and much more. Concrete Detail brings the project full circle, from consultation and design, to fabrication and installation. We enjoy the intimate collaboration with our clients as an integral part of the process of fulfilling a commission – which brings us to the reasons for choosing concrete as a surfacing option.

Concrete countertops are, at least in our interpretation, highly functional aesthetic furnishings – we call it Artformed TM. Not rarefied, subjective collector’s items, but hard-working and deeply satisfying necessities. Every home needs a countertop and everyone wants to make their home their own; the medium of concrete allows personal expression without design constraint, all the while meeting the demands of everyday life with durability, versatility, and sustainability (at a very competitive cost). Today’s high performance concrete has very little to do with a cracked sidewalk and everything to do with lasting design in the hands of a master artisan. We utilize these capabilities to invest the concrete with soul: captured within the finished pieces are the craftsman, the dweller, and their environment. When the completed elements are delivered and brought into their intended places, they belong – because they were consciously made for that person and place alone. This is the essence of appropriate design.

















Once again, you can get more information about Concrete Detail on their website. Thanks Richard!

36 comments:

  1. I love the one with sink drainage shaped reminiscent of trees. My brother in law lives in Texas and they have a concrete floor in their house that is just gorgeous. I had no idea you could do that with concrete. After it was poured and drying, some leaves were blown in the back door and left their impressions on the floor. Instead of smoothing them out, they left it as is and it's really neat.

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  2. Paul, you are probably not going to believe me but yesterday I was actually researching the use of Concrete in design. What I quickly discovered; is that it definitely is an art form which opens up a whole new world of possibilities. Conclusion, if I were building a home it would be on the top of my 'Wish List'.
    -Brenda-

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  3. One of the reasons I'm so drawn to Richard's work is the artistic nature of it. He knows just when to pull back and that's the key to using a medium with so few limits. Brattleboro's fortunate to have him there, finding someone with this level of skill and vision is next to impossible.

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  4. Paul, apparently it is a medium that is very popular in Australia.
    -Brenda-

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  5. Really beautiful work! I had a landlord at my old studio space, and he was starting to do formed concrete pieces with Buddy Rhodes products. But he never really had the restraint or the artistic talent Richard does - and everything ended up looking gaudy and 1987-ish. Imagine: he faced his living room fireplace with bright purple concrete. Oh, yes.

    Congratulations, Richard. You've created a very rare niche for your vision and it's working beautifully.

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  6. Hey folks!

    Here I am - thank you Paul for going through on your threat to do this! I (just now) had a chance to check on this post and "it looks mah-velous". We're having a little family getaway this weekend, so I wasn't able to go online 'til this moment.

    If anyone has any questions about the possibilities of artisan concrete in your home or business, please fire away and I will be happy to help out. As Paul and others have pointed out, concrete is the ultimate in expanding design versatility - but you need to know where to go with it. That's the part I enjoy - it's all in the details (thus the name!). It's very hands-on, face-to-face medium and it's time to let it come into its own.

    So please: I'm here to assist you. And thank you Paul for spreading the word!

    Rich

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  7. The master speaks! Seriously, take him up on his offer. Ask away!

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  8. BTW, my hero Buddy Rhodes was mentioned by Julie. Buddy is the godfather of artisan concrete in this country and a personal friend. Very down-to-earth and accessible - just a great guy (and his wonderful wife Susan Andrews keeps it that way!). He has a superb line of concrete products which folks can use to create their own projects if they choose... I must say, from experience, that it isn't as easy as it looks and that's where a professional comes in. We have been working in this field for four and a half years and I learn something new every day... and I love it!

    Buddy Rhodes and his people have had the grace to accept me into their "family": I am a certified Buddy Rhodes artisan and proud of it! Thanks everyone - we're taking this to the next level.

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  9. Oh my goodness, Richard's work is sublime. Simply incredible.

    I know it's too much to hope that he works farther afield than the Northeast.

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  10. I'm insane for that orange sink. I'm sure he has a connection of some kind for you in Denver Raina. Richard?

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  11. I was at the Home & Garden show here in Ottawa yesterday, and one of the booths was a company that makes concrete countertops. The sample they had was stunning -- a beautiful soft grey with little pits and divots that gave it wonderful character.

    We won't be changing our kitchen countertops any time soon, but concrete is definitely on my "want to have" list for a future house :-)

    Thanks to Richard for sharing his story and pictures of his beautiful work :-)

    Kelly

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  12. Thanks Kelly. Oh hey, my sources tell me that you've met Brenda's husband but not Brenda (MrsBen). It's such a small world!

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  13. We don't limit ourselves to anywhere Raina! No boundaries...

    Orange sinks, Denver, whatever works or the need arises. I am fortunate to have found this means of expression and to work with so many people that appreciate it. The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades.

    I am looking forward to building these relationships with my Twitter and FB friends - what a ride! Please, let's continue this dialogue and create some beautiful spaces together. Conscious, appropriate design. The real deal. Concrete evidence.

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  14. Love his work! Am doing my best to convince client now to have a sink made for a powder bath! Wish was cheaper to ship !!

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  15. Richard, you're welcome back any time. Please keep my updated on any new developments at Concrete Detail and feel free to show off your work here.

    Cheryl: Maybe we need a road trip to Vermont to retrieve your vanity top instead of paying for shipping. Blogger19 goes to Brattleboro?

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  16. Cheryl (Detailsanddesign)- Thank you! I hope we are able to work together. The chemistry of the design process always flows better when everyone is coming from a similar place and I can tell that you are a "concrete natural". Of course, the client must be willing to trust your guidance!

    Shipping concrete is a weighty matter - yes - but I still consider the cost of the project as a whole to be an amazing value given that the result is a totally custom, handcrafted work of functional art. When you juxtapose that to a mass-market (or even limited edition) option, there really is no comparison. But the user needs to see the value in that - some people "get it" right away - and those are my people!

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  17. I hope anyone reading this page Paul will take a few moments to pop into Richard's Blog, as his vision and craftsmanship is truly astounding.
    -Brenda-

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  18. I couldn't agree more Brenda, his company's blog is equally interesting --Richard's an engaging writer.

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  19. Paul, I only had one experience with concrete (fast-setting compound). It was quite a number of years ago when I decided to do a small project. Long story, short version; after mixing it the da*n stuff began to smoke. (No mention of it on the package.) First instinct was PANIC with visions of making front page headlines reading "Suburb Woman Flattens and Destroys Neighbourhood." Funny now when I think about it, but definitely NOT at the time. LOL -Brenda-

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  20. Hmmm, it's pretty alkaline stuff but I wonder what would cause it to smoke.

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  21. Hi Paul! I'm back again for a snoop around. Love the concrete worktops, I really like the black - Matt finished one. Some lovely work and will have to show some of my readers this.

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  22. Hey Keith, poke around at will. Do you see concrete counters very often in Ireland? Track down Richard on Twitter, I'm sure he'd love for you to show off his work in your part of the world. Seriously.

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  23. Paul, I have absolutely no idea why it 'smoked' and it did frighten me, but otherwise it mixed well and set quickly. For mixing purposes, I believe I 'may' have used a cheap foil roasting pan. (Easy to form a spout and dispose of.)

    Maybe Richard would know why it 'smoked'. All I know is, I shan't try it again.

    -Brenda-

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  24. Aha! That concrete mix you used must have had an additive in it that made it extra alkaline. Hyper alkalinity and aluminum don't get along. Spray oven cleaner on an aluminum pot sometime and watch what happens. I'll be that had you used something other than that cheap roasting pan it wouldn't have smoked. Now I wonder what gas that "smoke" was. Is there a chemist in the house?

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  25. Hi Paul,
    I have never used concrete, we mostly work with wood,granite and SileStone.
    I will have a chat with Richard first chance I get.
    Keep up the good work.

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  26. Keith: They are a bit of a novelty here as well but Richard's work makes me want to specify it and his counters in particular.

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  27. Paul that very well could be the answer and I shall chalk it up 'to another lesson learned in life'. Thank you. -Brenda-

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  28. Situations like this make me wish I'd have kept on going with chemistry and the rest. I know just enough to understand the general concepts but not the specifics. Not knowing really gnaws at me.

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  29. Hi Kit (@CocinaDesigns),

    Back on the job after a rare family weekend off - I'm happy to answer the question you emailed to me (I took the liberty of re-posting it here for everyone's edification).

    You asked, "Am I a proponent of re-coloring concrete if a client so requests?"

    I was not familiar with the local fabricator you quoted in your email, but I took a look at their website. I may be off the mark, but it looks like they are using a technique known as GFRC (glass fiber reinforced concrete) which delivers a lighter weight, higher flex strength result but is most often expressed through what is known as a cream finish: this tends toward solid colors with maybe a slight mottling and less texture and inclusions. A nice product with its own specific look.

    The re-coloring to which they refer would be through the use of surface applied dyes, stains, and washes in situ (after removing the original sealer coat) and then resealing to lock in the treatment (the sealer itself can be tinted also). This is a perfectly valid method of changing up the appearance if needed, although I must say that (in my experience) it is atypical - as a touted selling point. Also, this is strictly a surface re-coloring option, working with the existing substrate and its integral palette.

    Concrete countertops ARE one of the more sustainable surface options - if you know your LEED scoring system, local sourcing is a major criteria, as well as the use of recycled material, low VOC components, service life, and a few others. Concrete scores well in these areas typically.

    To answer your original question: Am I a proponent of color re-treatment? Custom concrete is a manifestation of its creators; everyone has their own look and process - not all concrete is created equal. Whereas I personally do not champion this approach, looking at a given commission as creating a unique work of functional art that stands on its own integrity, another may choose to offer this service. Not my preference - but that's why there are multiple studios with which to work and choose. I guess I would recommend that you speak with someone who has gone down this route and see if they were happy with the result and its success.

    I'm so glad to see you are interested in exploring the use of concrete more in your designs; it's a very dynamic and personally satisfying material - if there's anything I can do to help, please let me know!

    Rich

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  30. Paul,

    I will concur with you on the concrete/aluminum reaction; these are two materials that don't play well together! Aluminum reacts with strong alkalis such as fluid concrete producing aluminum hydroxide and hydrogen gas (!); typically this subsides once the concrete hardens and dries. Continual wetting (such as an exterior installation) can extend the reaction; but typically it is confined to the surface and may not compromise the metal structurally. Thus aluminum fittings are in common use with poured concrete today notwithstanding.
    Countertop studios such as our own avoid the use of aluminum completely in our work for embedded trivets, drainboards, etc. since appearance is paramount and corrosion would be verboten. Another significant factor is that the coefficient of expansion is three times that of concrete and it can force stress cracking. Better accent metals to use with concrete are stainless steel, brass, and copper.

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  31. Paul

    You are right on the mark about the concrete/aluminum reaction in your reply to Brenda (mrsben). These two materials don't play well together. Aluminum reacts strongly to alkalis (and acids) releasing aluminum hydroxide and hydrogen gas (!) in the presence of water carrying the free ions.
    This reaction subsides after the fluid concrete hardens and dries, although rewetting, such as an exterior installation, can continue the corrosion process. Aluminum fittings and hardware are used routinely nowadays, notwithstanding since the reaction is limited to the surface typically and may not affect structural integrity.
    However. for this reason, concrete countertop studios such as our own, avoid the use of embedded aluminum scrupulously in our work as trivets, drainboards, etc., since final appearance is paramount. More suitable accent metals are stainless steel, brass and copper. We want to keep it looking great for a long time!

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  32. Thanks for the clarifications Richard. I hope Kit sees the tinting comments and I'm happy you corroborated my idea about concrete reacting to aluminum. The release of hydrogen from Brenda's pan makes perfect sense. Now that I know I can get on with my life. Ahhhh, I love knowing what something is.

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  33. Thank you Richard for the very enlightening explanation and thank you too Paul for the opportunity of having this conversation.

    Much appreciated on both accounts gentlemen.
    -Brenda-

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  34. It's my pleasure as always Brenda, I'm glad we could help.

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  35. Great article and photos of Richard's work. I've had the pleasure of meeting Rich and getting a tour of his shop in Brattleboro, VT and am hoping to work with him on a few projects in the future. His work is absolutely amazing - who knew that concrete could be so beautiful and functional at the same time? He's truly gifted and a great guy, too!
    Ceil Petrucelli

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  36. Ceil: Thanks for the comment and the rousing endorsement of Richard and his work. He deserves all the attention he gets!

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