You wouldn't expect a boundary-pushing design exhibition to revolve around a material as pedestrian as cork. But Metamorphosis, on show at the Jerónimos monastery, near Belém west of Lisbon, is remarkably cutting-edge. The central show at Lisbon's Experimenta Biennale (EXD 13), Metamorphosis will not only do wonders for the country's reinvigorated cork industry, but will also make its mark on the world of environmentally friendly design.

Portuguese cork company Amorim enlisted ten international designers and architects for the exhibition, giving them carte blanche to create thought-provoking and innovative examples of the material's reusability, biodegradability and versatility. In testing the merits of the zero-carbon material, they devised vast new terrain for cork.

Some of the models rendered the material virtually unrecognisable. A pair of cork shoes designed by Jasper Morrison for Camper, for example, was a faithful reworking of the brand's first product from the late 1920s and yet set a new standard in durability. Meanwhile, Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, known for developing ideas and projects in the social field, presented two ideas: his 'Soft Monoliths' showed cork as an architectural skin to increase uniformity, and his set of comfortable cork clogs, inspired by Dutch wooden clogs, reworked the shoe as a lighter, stronger, waterproof upgrade.

Among the more useful pieces were a set of door handles and a handrail designed by Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura. Fellow Pritzker Prize winner Álvaro Siza devised a nest of two cylindrical stools, ergonomically designed with impact absorption for maximum comfort. And architect Amanda Levete also developed furniture in the form of a 'Cork Kit': two modular geometric pieces that, when combined, can be used as a stool, table, small stair or a wall element with soundproofing properties.

Other architects showed the benefits of the material for construction purposes, such as Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, who presented a cork maquette of the Elbphilharmonie concert hall currently under construction in Hamburg. Another eye-catching example came courtesy of João Luís Carrilho da Graça, who is fusing cork with concrete to use in the vast new cruise-ship terminal he has designed for Lisbon. According to Graça, the symbiosis between cork and concrete is the genesis of a new, lighter, more insulating and aesthetically pleasing material.

Metamorphosis is one of a rich series of exhibitions and conferences from participants from 24 countries during EXD13, which takes the theme of 'No Borders' and runs until close to Christmas. The programme also includes a sneak preview of the new coach museum by Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha and a tropical garden show, titled Unmapping the World, at the Palácio dos Condes da Calheta.

TAGS: PORTUGAL