The United States is in the fourth year of its housing slump, and the commercial building sector is down as well.
So why does DuPont Co. think now is the right time to open its first design studios, including one in Philadelphia, to showcase its Corian solid surfaces?
It's hoping to create buzz - and new business - for a 42-year-old product primarily known for its use in countertops. To that end, the Wilmington chemical giant has opened studios in Milan, New York and now Philadelphia to show designers and architects how Corian can be used as a design material.
DuPont and its partner behind the studio, C.H. Briggs Co., a Reading-based building products distributor, will open the Philadelphia studio today.
Milan and New York are certainly style capitals. Why Philadelphia?
Thomas F. Schuler, general manager of DuPont Building Innovations, said Philadelphia has its own professional community that pushes the envelope on innovative and sustainable building and interior design.
So the 2,500-square-foot studio in the Marketplace Design Center at 2400 Market St. incorporates Corian into undulating ceiling lighting, textured exterior panels, and decorative window screens that were etched to show the cityscape outside.
And it's hard to miss the massive conference table that looks like a piece of white gum that's been pulled apart. That's the handiwork of West Chester-based MacLaren Fabrication Inc., which executed a concept by New York interior designer Harry Allen.
Jeff McPhie, general manager of MacLaren Fabrication, said the table was made from 100 pieces of Corian that were heated until pliable and formed around a wooden base. Bolted to the floor, the table curves through a circular opening in a glass wall.
Corian, an acrylic polymer, is not just for kitchens and bathrooms, Schuler said. In fact, half of its sales come from the commercial sector, where it's used in office lobbies, hospitals, retail stores and educational settings. Construction activity in some of those industries has held up pretty well, he said.
With $30.5 billion in 2008 net sales, DuPont doesn't break out results for its individual brands, such as Kevlar and Tyvek. Corian is part of the DuPont Safety & Protection segment, which had 2008 sales of $5.7 billion, up 2 percent from the previous year.
The Building Innovations unit is little more than three years old, created to bridge the information gap between DuPont's labs and architects' studios. "This is the first time we've given the architectural and design community the … opportunity not only to be inspired but also to help others be inspired as well," Schuler said.
However, the new business unit, which employs about 1,000 people, was assembled at the crest of the nation's building frenzy. It's been largely downhill for builders, developers and architects since.
DuPont, Schuler said, has not wavered from its longer term vision for this business. "A downturn is actually a great opportunity to accelerate that vision, not slow it down," he said.
So DuPont has focused on making its Web site better, because its surveys show that 79 percent of consumers search the Internet first for information about countertops, Schuler said.
Countertops are fabricators' bread and butter. McPhie said MacLaren, with 50 employees, is a little smaller than it was two years ago. Lately, it's won more work on high-end residential projects, including a major installation on St. John, the Virgin Islands.
Over the years, MacLaren has worked with many artists who use Corian as their medium, McPhie said. He hopes the new Corian studio will help designers better understand how versatile the product is.
Manufactured in Tonawanda, N.Y., Corian may be available in more than 200 colors worldwide, but the most popular tends to be white, Schuler said.
Case in point: The Seeko'o Hotel in Bordeaux, France, which opened in 2007. Architect Jean-Christophe Masnada chose to clad the exterior of the hotel using white Corian panels.