The story of marmoreal


11 April 2014

Marmoreal is an unusual material. It is an engineered stone: a material designed to be stronger, more durable, less porous and able to be cut into thinner slices without cracking than conventional marbles. It is a terrazzo plus; a contemporary reengineering of a traditional material. And it looks very much like nougat.

Designed by Max Lamb, marmoreal is the debut product for Dzek, an architectural surface company founded by design curator Brent Dzekciorius. Presented during this week's Salone del Mobile in Milan's Project B gallery, marmoreal contains a number of contradictions. It is a building material shown in an art gallery; a highly engineered stone devised by a designer known for a hands-off, let-it-be approach; and an architectural surface debuted in a week intended for industrial design. Such complexities are part of the project's appeal.

Dzek was launched in 2009 when Dzekciorius was living in New York, but the company was put on hiatus after Dzekciorius moved to London in 2010 to serve as worldwide director of the auctioneers Phillips de Pury’s retail operations. "In 2009 I didn’t have an aim for the company other than doing design production, but the philosophy has now shifted quite a bit," says Dzekciorius. "The company is now predominantly focused on material-based design and working with craft-orientated designers in the development and production of new architectural surface materials.”

Dzek’s first step in this process, marmoreal, is intriguing. It is a composite of four types of north Italian marble - red Rosso Verona, yellow Giallo Mori, green Verde Alpi and white Bianco Verona – that are mixed with polyester resin binders. The result is a white slab dashed through with thick seams of its constituent coloured marbles. It is a stone seeded with stones.

The material is most akin in conception to terrazzo – a traditional Italian surface material made from up from chips of marble set in cement – yet marmoreal has a far rawer aesthetic. The marble aggregates that make up marmoreal are large and rough-cut, whereas terrazzo’s composites are fine and neat. A terrazzo mixture is random, yet the small scale of the aggregates means that they build into speckled patternings that disguise this randomness through their sheer quantity. By contrast, the larger marmoreal's aggregates are pushed to the fore, revealing the irregularity of the stone mixture. marmoreal unashamedly displays its own construction.

Such construction is inescapable in the marmoreal installation at Project B in Milan. Dzekciorius has tiled the walls and floor of the gallery with marmoreal, coating them in their entirety. Everything is layered in colour-splashed marmoreal. And then there is more marmoreal. To demonstrate the material’s capabilities, Lamb has created a simple furniture series out of slabs of the material. There are chairs and tables and shelving, all built up from marmoreal, all merging back into the marmoreal walls and flooring. The room has been been gift wrapped in marmoreal.

It is a striking display and one that highlights quite how distinct Dzek's product looks from other materials. The material emphasis the natural qualities of the constituent marble, yet there is undoubtedly something artificial about the results. marmoreal doesn't look like marble and it doesn't look like terrazzo; comparisons to nougat or turron are about all that hold water. It is an aesthetic – peculiarly – that has its origins in Hull.

"My girlfriend and I took a day trip driving into Hull for the fun of it. Hull has a wonderful industrial heritage and I came across this funny little shack called Toffolos, an old Italian company,” says Lamb. "I knocked on the door and Carl Toffolo opened up. I spent the whole day with him and he taught me all about terrazzo, the history of it and how it’s produced these days. It inspired a few ideas, but it turned out the ideas I wanted to explore weren’t really possible in traditional terrazzo, so he introduced me to engineered terrazzo instead. There, rather than using a cement-based background, you have polyester resin based backgrounds, which makes the material more flexible."

Chemically, marmoreal is an engineered terrazzo, but one that has been filtered through Lamb’s distinctive sensibilities. Since graduating from the Royal College of Art in 2006, Lamb’s work has been characterised by a fidelity to materials and natural forms, typically resulting in small scale gallery editions. Pewter Desk (2011) is a simple, self-explanatory project that was roughly sand-casted on a beach in Cornwall. Ladycross Sandstone Chair (2007) is a squat, rough-hewn seat chiseled from a single block of stone.

"I don't think Max wanted to be constrained by other people’s perceptions of him any longer," says Dzekciorius of Lamb's decision to develop a commercial architectural material. "He wants an opportunity to break those." It is a point that Lamb has sympathy with: "I come up with ideas not for a particular market, but when I come up with an idea i have to find the correct market for that product.

"As much as I love terrazzo as a material in situ, it’s only on closer investigation that you can really appreciate what it is. I wanted my material to be immediately recognisable as lots of lumps of stone. I wanted it to be rocky and to look like the material that it is made of. Terrazo becomes a pattern and because it is such a small scale aggregate that it’s using, it blends in and becomes a very homogenous image. I wanted to really emphasise and accentuate the randomness of the mix and, I suppose, the actual nature of the material: lumps of stone set in a base matrix.”

Dzekciorius had collaborated with Lamb before and, when relaunching Dzek, invited him to develop his ideas into the company's first project. “Many engineered materials have a lack of human touch,” says Dzekciorius. “I thought it could be interesting to work with more artisanal people and then merge them with industry to see a different approach or sensitivity." Having found a collaborator and producer in the Santamargherita marble factory in Volargne, Italy, Dzekciorius and Lamb began to develop the recipe for marmoreal. It was not an easy process.

Early tests on the material were successful, with prototypes suggesting that Dzek would be able to launch at the London Design Festival in September 2013. “So we clicked the button and committed to producing a 10 tonne block,” says Lamb. This block was the culmination of a year and half’s worth of development, during which time Lamb and Dzekciorius had worked extensively with Santamargherita’s chemist to perfect the recipe or matrix (the fine-grained material in which the larger marble aggregate is embedded) for marmoreal. “That 10 tonne block was a full production version prototype,” says Dzekciorius. "And it technically failed.”

As the prototype marmoreal was cut into slabs, the material began to crack. "The whole thing was unbalanced, mechanically unbalanced,” says Lamb. "The big pieces were too big and the background matrix was too small. You could compare it to concrete for example. If you cast pure cement, that would be very brittle. Concrete has to have a variety of different particle sizes in order for them to lock together. Similarly with marble, having a balanced matrix is the most important thing. The more balanced the matrix, the stronger the mix. So we had to change the mix to make it work. We reduced the size of the larger pieces and increased the size of the smaller pieces in order to make a more balanced matrix."

The finished, rebalanced, material is available in a variety of forms. It can be bought by the square metre or in standardised tile sizes, and the display at Galleria B is intended as a showcase for its capabilities. Tiling is prominent, yet Lamb's furniture series demonstrates the potential of easily building those tiles into three dimensional forms. Lamb's marmoreal chair is aggressively simple: three tiles attached together in a constellation.

"I have worked as much as possible within the standard tile dimensions or slab dimensions and tried to be as economical about it as possible, the pieces are very slabby and virtually non-design," says Lamb. "This is a product we’re able to present to architects and interior designers. This is a raw material, just as a sheet of plywood is a raw material. You can go to B&Q and buy a sheet of plywood, and now you can also go to Dzek and buy a sheet of marmoreal.

"There is a contrast with terrazzo. marmoreal is much more of a producible product available for sale, rather than a service. So Carl Toffolo provides a service, which is laying terrazzo. That’s a huge skill as a process, with huge amounts of equipment and which does, in a sense, limit the applications of the material. I was more interested, as a product designer, in tuning this material into a product."

The launch in Galleria B is a first step for Dzek, which has plans to develop a further five materials over the course of the next 10 years. To succeed, the brand will need to form new collaborations and develop a presence at architectural surface and interiors fairs. Yet for now, it is showing in a room in Milan, an installation in a gallery to the north of the city's centre.

"We thought we could benefit from a structure we’re familiar with and we like the energy of Milan and the history of design in Milan," says Dzekciorius. "I've diversified from product and furniture design, but I didn’t want to stop being a part of that."