Concrete Beauties

At Maine’s Lunaform pottery studio, a common building material achieves rare grace

BY TOM FISCHER PHOTOGRAPHY BY LYNN KARLIN

ASK ANY GARDENER WITH A KEEN EYE FOR STYLE where to find the most beautiful pots in the world, and the likely answer will be the Tuscan town of Impruneta, known for its high-fired, pink-tinged terra-cotta, or the southern French city of Anduze, whose name is synonymous with the suavely curved, green-or brown-glazed garland vases produced there. As it happens, both answers are wrong. The most beautiful pots in the world are made in the middle of the woods near the coastal town of Sullivan, Maine (population 1,185), by an eight-person operation called Lunaform. And they’re made of concrete.

That’s right—concrete. Banish any idea you might have of concrete as a drab, utilitarian, industrial material incapable of rivaling the beauty of stone or clay. This is concrete with a difference. Thanks to a fascinating process developed by Lunaform’s two founders, Phid Lawless and Dan Farrenkopf, the pots not only display a seemingly endless range of subtle colors, shapes, and textures, they are also amazingly durable. A Lunaform pot, even one filled to the brim with soil and plants, will come through a New England winter—outdoors—without so much as a crack or chip.

Besides its unlikely location, the Lunaform studio has other surprises in store. When you pull into the driveway, after driving nine miles up Route 1 from Ellsworth and making a couple of slightly tricky turns, you’re greeted by a cluster of exquisitely crafted Japanese-style buildings, connected by a covered breezeway and surrounded by dense-growing firs and maples. The whole thing looks as though it’s jumped right off the pages of The Tale of Genji. Not exactly what you’d expect from a pottery studio in Maine, but then Lawless and Farrenkopf aren’t your typical potters, either. Lawless, lanky and soft-spoken, was trained as an architect and painter (the studio buildings are his designs), and put in a stint running a sporting goods business in Ellsworth and Bar Harbor. Farrenkopf, whose animated manner is paired with a frank, disarming gaze, also studied architecture and the arts, and started a business designing, installing, and maintaining a number of gardens on Mount Desert Island. Despite the success of their ventures, both felt that something was missing in their lives. The solution arrived when they met in 1992 and came up with the idea for Lunaform. For Lawless, it was a way to get back to sustained creative work. For Farrenkopf, it combined his love of gardens, architecture, sculpture, and concrete.

THE LUNAFORM PROCESS What sets a Lunaform pot apart from most other concrete ornaments is that it isn’t cast in a mold; rather, it is built up by hand, layer by layer, and reinforced with a skeleton of galvanized steel wire. The result is absolutely winterproof. “The steel is what’s needed to cope with the pressure of soil that’s freezing and expanding, or plants that develop a really big root ball over the years,” says Lawless. “That’s why we are totally confident that our pots are really four-season pots.”

Top to bottom: Phid Lawless (standing) and Dan Farrenkopf. Two popular Lunaform styles: the Borghese (left) and Umbria. A Borghese pot turned on its side; behind is a Milano. Opposite: A Toscano (a smaller version of the Milano).

Urns as Art

Choosing a piece of garden sculpture can be a tricky business. On the one hand, the best antique and modern sculpture tends to come with a price tag in the thousands or even millions. On the other hand, the stuff that’s affordable can veer off all too easily into kitsch—mass-produced frolicking fairies, boisterous bullfrogs, and other such horrors. If you’re a creative type, you might be able to express yourself with rusty rebar. If not, my advice is, try a pot. The curves and proportions of a well-crafted pot, jar, or urn are every bit as satisfying as a master-piece by Henry Moore, and can be enjoyed for about one-ten-thousandth the cost. Placed in a border, a tall urn becomes an instant focal point. And there are end-less opportunities for contrasting the static shape of the pot with the everchanging shapes of plants. Even plain terra-cotta, for example, can be a perfect foil for a variety of leaf textures. And if you choose a glazed or tinted pot, you can have fun playing with all the nuances of floral shape and color. One last suggestion: if you place your pot in the middle of a densely planted border, resist the temptation to stuff even more plants into the pot itself. A really handsome pot is a work of art; it doesn’t need the enhancement of cascading fuchsias and fanflowers. —T.F.

Opposite: Each Lunaform pot is built upon a jointed wooden mold, which is removed section by section through the pot’s mouth once the pot is finished. Left, top to bottom: After several layers of concrete have been applied (each of which must cure for 24 hours before the next is added), the steel-wire skeleton is fitted into etched grooves. Then more layers of concrete are added until the steel skeleton is completely encased. A template determines the pot’s final outline.

Although the basic outlines of the technique seem simple, in reality they are anything but, and there were many partial successes and outright failures before Lawless and Farrenkopf perfected the Lunaform process. “We were probably in business almost three years before we got our method down,” says Farrenkopf, with a wry smile. “We wound up with a lot of concrete on our feet.”

During those three years, Lawless and Farrenkopf went through a crash course in the chemistry of concrete. “It’s pretty complicated,” Lawless says. “There’s a whole massive science to it.” They learned, for example, that the best cement for their concrete mixture was type III Portland, also known as high early Portland. “We use type III because it cures to 90 percent of its total potential strength in seven days, rather than the 28 days of types I and II,” says Lawless. “It’ll take another 100 years to get that last 10 percent; from there, it’ll start to go fractionally the other way.” They also discovered that the addition of generous amounts of polymer to their mixture enhanced the concrete’s durability. “Basically, polymer’s a water substitute,” says Lawless. “It’s the most expensive ingredient we use in our mix, but the more you replace water with polymer, the more impermeable the concrete will be, and the better it will handle freezing and thawing.”

Even the right cement doesn’t ensure that all will go smoothly, however. As Lawless points out, “It’s hard to control concrete because there are so many things that affect it—how wet or dry the sand is, the humidity, the air temperature, the temperature of the sand … When you’re adding layers of fresh concrete onto a layer that’s hard but not fully cured, you have to have a kind of slurry that will promote the growth of crystals in the second layer of concrete so that it will bind with the first—the crystals actually penetrate and join with the first layer.”

Then, of course, there’s the sheer physical challenge of shaping the concrete into such massive forms. (See the photographs left.) Lunaform pots are molded onto collapsible, handmade wooden forms, many of which are works of art in themselves. After many layers of concrete have been added—each of which requires a 24-hour curing period—the outer contour of the pot is then determined by a template. “The angle of the template is really critical,” says Lawless. “A difference of one degree will determine whether getting the concrete to adhere is easy or difficult.” Even then, gravity can wreak havoc. “When you’re working on the underside of a jar where the concrete is trying to hang on, it can get so heavy that unless everything is perfect, a whole section can come off all of a sudden,” Lawless explains. “That would be the kind of thing that makes it not a fun experience.”

FINAL TOUCHES Of course, the ultimate test of an ornamental pot is not the complexity and ingenuity of its manufacture, but its strength and beauty, and a Lunaform pot represents the ideal union of these essential qualities. Lawless and Farrenkopf offer more than 40 styles, from the aptly named Toscano and Borghese, whose shapes conjure up images of the ancient Mediterranean world, to the Orani and Fluted Tulip, which have a more Asian flavor. All but three or four of their styles are original designs. Even so, there is a timeless quality to a Lunaform pot. As Farrenkopf explains, “If you were to look at the illustrations of pots in any encyclopedia of ceramics, you’d find similarities with our work, simply because the art of pottery tends to repeat certain basic forms through the ages.”

Each of the Lunaform styles can be ordered in one of eleven standard colors, which are reminiscent of various kinds of stone, metal, or clay, but the studio will also gladly produce custom colors for no extra charge. Say you’re walking along the beach and find a nice slate-purple pebble that’s the exact color you want your pot to be. No problem—just send it to Lunaform. “It’s one of the areas where we have fun,” says Lawless. Even though it’s applied last, the color isn’t a veneer—it’s a layer of tinted concrete that binds with the pot itself. “It’s a special, much stronger concrete, like the kind you use in swimming pools,” Lawless explains. “We add the dye at this stage because the amount of pigment for an eighth of an inch is a lot less than it would be for the whole body. But the bond is still incredibly strong—you can’t scratch off the colored layer; you’d have to knock it off with a brick hammer.” The finish can be made even more subtle and beautiful through the application of tinted, polymer-based glazes, which can be built up layer by layer. “We get nice textures and no seams,” Farrenkopf says, with justifiable pride. “And we can make our pots look brand new, or 50 years old, or 100 years old,” Lawless adds.

Clearly, the techniques that Lawless and Farrenkopf have developed have enabled them to produce exquisite objects, but it’s not a method that can be rushed. “The drawback of our process is that it’s slow,” Lawless admits. He estimates that it takes an average of three weeks, from start to finish, to produce one of their pots. With a staff of only eight, that translates to a wait of about four months from the time an order is received to the time the finished pot is shipped. But Lawless and Farrenkopf have no plans to expand the business. “We’ll just keep it as it is,” says Lawless with a smile. A four-month wait for a creation of supreme beauty that will last for centuries? Sounds like a good deal to me.

If You Go The Lunaform studios and display gardens are located in Sullivan, Maine-an easy 45-minute drive from Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park-and are open year-round. Visiting hours are 9:30-11:30 A.M. and 1:00-4:30 P.M. Monday-Friday, and Saturdays by appointment. For more information, telephone 207-422-0923. For driving directions, or to see the complete Lunaform catalog, visit www.lunaform.com. Horticulture‘s program, “The Adventurous Gardener in Maine” (July 31-August 4), includes the Lunaform studios in its itinerary. Call 800-395-1901 for information.

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