Product design with natural stone (1): what is actually meant by this and how can objects for everyday use be created from marble, granite & Co?

James Irvine for Marsotto Edizioni: doorstops.

“Form Follows Function“ is the guideline, in the case of a competition supplemented by intelligent project management on the part of the curators and clients

More and more trade fairs and associations have discovered the topic of product design with natural stone. Time for us to take stock of the years since 1950, when sculptors in the Carrara area first tried their hand at everyday objects made of marble on a large scale. In the first part of our series, we look at the question of what product design with stone actually is and how to make corresponding competitions a success.

In 2021 it is the stone association in Sweden, last year it was an initiative from Wallonia in Belgium, for several years before that the associations IMIB and EIB from Turkey as well as numerous trade fairs such as the Marmomac, the Xiamen Stone Fair, the Vitoria Stone Fair in Brazil or the Rocalia in France: all of them have made the topic of product design with natural stone their own, partly in annual competitions, partly as an innovative segment of their presentations on the fairgrounds.

The question arises: what is actually meant by product design with natural stone?

An object should show us what it is all about. Question to readers: what everyday objects are hidden behind the shark fins in the photo at the top?

Answer: they are doorstops, designed by the English-Italian designer James Irvine and produced by the Italian company Marsotto Edizioni.

Even at first glance, you can see the essence of the design idea: doorstops need to be heavy, stone is heavy, so stone can be a suitable material for a doorstop. Irvine has set the scene for this fact with an original shape and with the beautiful Carrara marble.

Product design means creating objects that can be used in everyday life and are also beautiful to look at. Industrial design is an extension and says that the object can be produced in large quantities.

The basic rule for product design is well known: “Form Follows Function“ it says. What is meant by this is that the most important characteristic of an object is its functionality, only second is its appearance – form comes after function in the design process.

One can also speak of material-appropriate design: the properties of the stone must support the usability of the object. James Irvine has fulfilled this in his doorstops as elegantly and as seemingly casually.

Let us formulate a first credo for product design with natural stone: what matters is what the stone can do. And with this we have entered a minefield: because whoever asks this question also asks what can stone NOT DO, or the question would never come up at all.

For some representatives of the natural stone sector, such a sober approach is a sacrilege: stone can do everything, they postulate, and stone always looks good.

We would just like to comment on this here: neither in the glass, nor in the steel, nor in any other industry would anyone think of claiming such a thing about their own material.

Lamp „Arco“ by Achille and Pier Castiglioni.

Let us look at a classic of product design with natural stone, the lamp “Arco“ of the brothers Achille Castiglioni (1918-2002) and Pier Castiglioni (1913-1968): it also uses the weight of the stone to give a great counterweight to the widely curved arm with little mass. The shape of the base is conceivably simple, so that here too the Carrara marble comes into its own beautifully.

However, the two Castiglionis ran into a problem with this design: the foot weighs almost a hundred pounds (43 kg) and consequently cannot be moved easily. They found a great solution: through the upper part of the marble a hole is drilled through which you can stick a broomstick – so, for example, when cleaning the apartment 2 people can easily move the lamp back and forth.

The lamp design from 1962 was and is so convincing that the object still exists today in endless variations, both in terms of form and material.

“Form Follows Function“ in other words, material and form must go together to produce an object suitable for everyday use.

Unfortunately, this is usually not the case in the stone sector: objects are created with the primary goal of using as much stone as possible. As a result, they are heavy, unwieldy and unsaleable.

We show a few examples without naming the creators:


But why is it that, for example in competitions, so many students and even professional designers fail with natural stone?

The blame lies, this may be surprising, with the clients, i.e., with the curators of the fairs or with the companies that initiate the competitions: they do not ask the participants to use the stone in such a way that it supports the function as much as possible but wish (at least underhandedly) that as much stone as possible be used for the object.

At this point we refer again to our remark from above that some people from the stone industry claim that their material can do everything and always looks good.

This also means that the curator or client must not put a block of stone in front of the participants so that they create their object from it. If he does, the participants immediately work like sculptors. The result, as we have already said, is unsaleable – in other words, a failure.

The question to the designer must always be why he actually wants to use stone, to what extent this serves the function.

The solution to this dilemma can be found at furniture or interior design fairs: here the creatives and their clients do not pursue a design FROM stone, but only a design WITH stone. We show a few examples and will deal with this aspect in detail in a later part of our series.

Functional and therefore saleable: table by Italian company Bamax.Stone and beauty: mirrors by Italian company JCP, designstudio CTRLZAK.

The next episode is about material-appropriate design. The central question here is: What can the stone do? One of the material properties we will be dealing with was already mentioned in the successful examples above: stone can be heavy.

(28.05.2021, USA: 05.28.2021)