Martha recalls her visit with concrete artisan Carlos Cortes and revels in the massive faux-bois pieces he has made for her.
Photography: Christopher Baker1 of 12
Martha's Faux Bois Collection
I amassed quite an assortment of early-20th-century concrete faux-bois furniture after I bought my house in Maine more than a decade ago. I thought that using this heavy, unusual, rustic, artisanal furniture would add a touch of whimsy to the rather formal arrangements of the mostly English antiques found throughout the house. The house itself was constructed from blocks of hand-cut pink granite quarried on site, and the faux bois reiterated the handcrafted look of the architecture.
When I started collecting, I found most of the pieces at antiques shows -- such as the New York Botanical Garden show in May and the Lexington Avenue Armory Garden Antiques Show (which now takes place in Chicago) -- and at several Maine, Connecticut, and New York dealers, including Bob Withington in York, Maine, and John Rosselli and Judith and James Milne in New York City. I bought planters, chairs, benches, luncheon tables, and stands.
Placed throughout the house and on the terrace, they did make the decor feel less formal. They also became serious conversation pieces. I will never forget the look on a young child's face when she tried to move a small side chair up to the Scrabble table and discovered that she could not budge it!
Photography: Chuck Baker2 of 12
As is the case with many of my collections, I found myself searching for bigger and better and more important pieces. I found my first large table at the Armory show and took it to Maine to put in the large "living hall." It looked amazing there, and I decided that the gravitas of the piece was excellent in the house.
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Meet Carlos Cortes
I started searching for other large tables but had no luck locating similar pieces. I did, however, find a large bench. The dealer told me it was newly made in Texas by a third-generation faux-bois artist named Carlos Cortes. It turns out that faux bois has been a decorating tradition not only in France and Italy, but also in Japan, Mexico, and Spain. I called Carlos and arranged to visit his San Antonio atelier.
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I took photos of the other pieces I owned so he could understand the style I was looking for. I was a bit surprised to find Carlos in an open-air studio, a former automotive service station. Many Texas-style benches and tables were in the yard, and Carlos showed me how he worked on his projects. His materials were simple (concrete, steel wire, rebar), and his tools were rudimentary (sticks, coarse brushes, rough abrasives). The screen holds the mortar and gives a piece its shape, the paintbrush is handy for pushing concrete into the screen, and the fork and the trowel are used to carve intricate wood-grain motifs.
Photography: frédéric lagrange5 of 12
We decided that he would create two dining tables, one large and one smaller, with pink granite terrazzo tops. These were delivered six months later and were so wonderful that I decided to replace the formal skirted 90-inch round table that was in the living hall with a giant rectangular table and benches. This time the tabletop would be wood-grained cement, as would the four bench tops. I gave Carlos a deadline, begging him for the furniture before summer.
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Photography: frédéric lagrange6 of 12
When the table base and top and four benches arrived, I was amazed at their beauty and weight. The top alone weighed 1,200 pounds! It was a struggle to get the table into the hall.
Photography: frédéric lagrange7 of 12
Easy Does It
The crew had to build a ramp over the four stairs to get it into place. The proportions are perfect, and the EZ Glide surface protectors on the feet actually allow me to move everything on the smooth wooden floors at will.
Photography: frédéric lagrange8 of 12
The team did a masterful job, and the table fits so well in the room.
Photography: Christopher Baker9 of 12
Faux Bois, Step-By-Step
Carlos casts the base of any piece in a combination of concrete sand and Portland cement, and then pours a top layer of creamy cement, which is like icing on a cake; it's soft and has to set in order to hold the design.
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Creating the Pattern
Before the cement gets too hard (15 to 20 minutes after pouring), Carlos starts creating the faux-bois details -- in the case of this table, a pattern of tree rings and knots.
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Photography: Christopher Baker11 of 12
Using a Wire Form
For each piece, including this stand for a birdhouse, Carlos starts from a wire form.
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