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Seamless operation: Sullivan company creates one-of-a-kind concrete forms

Posted Aug. 11, 2012, at 6:37 p.m.
Rick Stevenson, a worker at Lunaform LLC, hand-packs concrete into a large bowl at the company's studio in Sullivan. Each piece requires several layers of concrete, applied over several days.
Rick Stevenson, a worker at Lunaform LLC, hand-packs concrete into a large bowl at the company's studio in Sullivan. Each piece requires several layers of concrete, applied over several days. Buy Photo
Rick Stevenson places steel mesh in the base of a large concrete bowl at Lunaform LLC's Sullivan studio. The company uses steel to add tensile strength to the concrete and prevent damage from freezing and thawing in winter.
Rick Stevenson places steel mesh in the base of a large concrete bowl at Lunaform LLC's Sullivan studio. The company uses steel to add tensile strength to the concrete and prevent damage from freezing and thawing in winter. Buy Photo
Dan Farrenkopf, co-founder of Lunaform, shows off one of the internal molds the company uses to create seamless works of concrete. The forms can be disassembled inside a finished product and removed through the opening, allowing for shapes that would otherwise be impossible without casts.
Dan Farrenkopf, co-founder of Lunaform, shows off one of the internal molds the company uses to create seamless works of concrete. The forms can be disassembled inside a finished product and removed through the opening, allowing for shapes that would otherwise be impossible without casts. Buy Photo
A selection of urns and planters available at Lunaform LLC in Sullivan.
A selection of urns and planters available at Lunaform LLC in Sullivan. Buy Photo
Dan Farrenkopf and Phid Lawless of Lunaform LLC.
Mario Moretto. | BDN
Dan Farrenkopf and Phid Lawless of Lunaform LLC. Buy Photo

SULLIVAN, Maine — In a Japanese-inspired compound surrounded by forest, a team of craftsmen have developed a unique process to create enormous one-of-a-kind concrete forms.

The facility at Lunaform LLC is surrounded by and filled with pieces ranging from colossal, 1,500-pound planters down to what pass for small works — knee-high, 210-pound “Luna” urns, the company’s namesake piece.

The company founded and operated by Phid Lawless and Dan Farrenkopf makes hand-turned, dry-packed concrete garden urns, planters, pots and more. And they’re the only ones in the game.

“Right now, in North America, this process is unique to us,” Farrenkopf said during a recent tour of the Sullivan shop.

The duo’s work has travelled far and wide, and been integrated into such recognizable landscapes as the New York Botanical Garden, Rockefeller Center and airports in San Francisco, Chicago, Memphis, Detroit, Minneapolis and Baltimore — not to mention countless private and public gardens.

Most concrete craftsmen are casters who construct molds, into which they pour near-liquid concrete, which dries and is later joined together. It’s a speedy process, good for mass-production, Lawless said, but results in seams where the pieces were joined.

Unlike those wet-pour concrete operations, Lunaform has developed two techniques to craft seamless vessels.

The first, used to create planters and bowls where the bottom is smaller than the opening, involves hand-packing concrete around an inverse mold of the piece. The mold is hand-spun as the mixture of sand, cement, water and acrylic (for plasticity) is applied, and each piece requires several days, one for each application, to reach the desired thickness. This process utilizes gravity in packing the concrete upside-down, to prevent distortion.

The second process, used to create urns and other pieces that balloon out between a narrow base and rip, is reminiscent of a ship in a bottle. The team builds a collapsible wooden mold around which the concrete is packed, the same as in the other process, but upright. The wooden mold is then disassembled, inside the completed product, and removed.

Both methods also use stationary metal trowels, or “screeds,” which attach to the manual spinning wheel and shape the exterior of the piece. This allows for flexibility in design, as screeds can be altered to create different works from the same internal mold.

All of Lunaform’s pieces also incorporate steel mesh. Concrete is remarkably durable under compression, but strains and cracks under tensile pressure such as that created by freezing and thawing soil in a planter pot. The steel corrects that flaw.

Lawless, the firm’s other co-founder, said the steel separates Lunaform from other so-called “all-weather” concrete products.

“Some of these other companies bill themselves as four-season pots, but they’re not,” Lawless said. “To not have steel in a planter, in a cold climate, is to not make an all-weather pot.”

The beauty and quality of Lunaform’s work — not to mention their catalog, which has grown to include more than 100 pieces — has earned them a loyal clientele of landscape architects, who Farrenkopf said will use the company’s pieces on one-third to one-half of their jobs.

“These landscape architects are artists, and we’ve become part of their palate,” he said.

Most of the works are planted, he said, and nearly all of them can be plumbed to create fountains.

While that explains most of the pieces churned out at Lunaform, Farrenkopf said there had been oddities. For example, the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, ordered a set of three giant, resealable funeral urns. The idea was to be able to store the ashes of an entire family in one urn.

The resultant design was similar to the canopic jars used in ancient Egypt to store and preserve organs for the deceased’s afterlife.

Farrenkopf said the company also has created custom bathtubs, birdbaths and sculptures that held fire.

The company was started 19 years ago. Farrenkopf, a College of the Atlantic graduate, linked up with Lawless, who then was an architect. The two shared an interest in gardening and design, between Farrenkopf’s experience designing gardens and landscaping and Lawless’ professional career.

It took about eight years to really perfect the process, Farrenkopf said, leading to the company’s high-water mark, in terms of production, in 2008. Demand fell slightly with the rest of the economy after that, he said, and has yet to rebound completely.

“We thought we might have been insulated from the recession, that we’d be nimble enough to sort of get into turtle-mode,” Farrenkopf said. “But conspicuous consumption is still a little out of style.”

Still, the company has grown from a partnership to a six-person operation. Each day, about eight pieces are in process. The company just shipped three 1,200-pound, 66-inch urns to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and had a stall at this weekend’s Maine Boats, Homes and Harbor’s Show in Rockland.

For more information, or a tour of Lunaform’s Sullivan studio, contact the company at 422-0923 or visit lunaform.com.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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