There’s a touch of irony in the career trajectory of Michael Fogg. He started out a dozen years ago as a cabinetmaker, crafting wooden bookshelves, cupboards, and carvings. But he found the competition stiff and the road to success steep. Then he came across a magazine article about Carlos Cortés, a San Antonio-based maker of concrete furniture that looks and feels like wood. Fogg taught himself the craft, known as faux bois, partly by watching videos on the web, and in 2012 he made it his main occupation.
Good move. That journey from the real to the artificial has put Fogg in a small group of artisans reviving the 19th-century art of faux bois, which lasts longer and allows more creativity than actual wood. Patsy Pittman Light, author of Capturing Nature: The Cement Sculpture of Dionicio Rodriguez, figures that there are perhaps a dozen professionals, at most, handcrafting faux bois objects in the United States. At 38, Fogg is in a sweet spot: He is keeping the tradition but experimenting with new techniques and aiming for a slightly lighter aesthetic than his peers. “I’m bringing the art into more modern times,” he says. “I want to update it.” Among his creations are tables held up by bonsai branches and chandeliers with slender, graceful branches.
As the name suggests, faux bois originated in France, where about 150 years ago Joseph Monier, a gardener who helped invent reinforced concrete, built a bridge at the Château Chazelet. Covering the guardrail frames with concrete, he fashioned them to look like weathered logs—with bark and knots and twigs. Before long, rusticity was fashionable. Monier’s faux bois techniques spread in Europe and jumped across the Atlantic. As Light relates, starting in the 1920s, Rodriguez, a Mexican faux bois genius, brought his art across the border into the Southwest, especially San Antonio; he spawned followers, including his great-nephew by marriage, Cortés, whose work had attracted Fogg.
On an early spring day, Fogg is working in his rural Connecticut studio on the pedestal of a birdbath (or maybe an elevated planter, depending on who buys it). “Usually, I do a sketch. I put some measurements on it, and that’s it,” he says. “This is the opposite of woodworking, which has to be perfect or it doesn’t fit. With this, there are no rules, except that it has to work structurally.”
Guided by his small sketch, he has already welded together the reinforcing bars that form the basic shape, or armature, of the pedestal—a thick wood trunk and two smaller branches. And he has covered that with stucco lath, a galvanized steel mesh that will hold successive layers of concrete.
Now he is mixing a small batch of Portland cement and pozzolans, tiny reactive particles like fly ash, to make concrete. Despite the 55-degree temperature in the studio, he will have only about 20 minutes to apply this first layer, before it grows too hard. Fogg picks up a scalpel and gets to work. Then he takes a fork to make the grooves that will provide a textured base for his next layer, the sculpting layer.
Like many faux bois artisans, Fogg has developed his own secret concrete formulas and tinkers with them from time to time. “The less water, the stronger the mix is, but the harder it is to work with,” he explains. “I like it to be like cream cheese, but pie dough is what you get if you don’t add enough water.”
On this day, he gets cream cheese, which gives him more time to work on sculpting—perhaps a few hours—before it hardens. He lathers it on with a spatula, then picks up various tools, from a trowel to a pointed spatula to a 2-inch paintbrush to a wire brush to a serving fork.
Sometimes he uses his fingers. As he works, wood grain and bark emerge from the concrete, as do knots and burls. “I just put in a wound this tree suffered,” he says. “It had termites.” Then he adds a long, deep crack with a trowel. Later, he will finish the piece with a proprietary process that both adds color and seals the surface. The end product can withstand harsh weather.
Though he works from his own imagination, Fogg says he sometimes brings in a piece of bark for inspiration. “Every time I walk in the woods, I see something and say to my wife, ‘Look at that bark,’ and sometimes I come home with a piece of it.”
One of the attractions of faux bois is the whimsy. In Fogg’s studio, for example, an almost-finished chandelier sports a knot with a face. (“That’s the silliest thing I’ve done, and I wasn’t sure about that,” he says.) Planters (wood-grained inside and out) wear little bits of bracket fungus or a snail shell.
Faux bois fits well in many homes, as well as in gardens, and Fogg has made benches, stump planters, tables, chandeliers, sconces, mirrors, and an arbor. For a recent distribution agreement, he is making floor models that will be shown in David Sutherland’s showrooms—but each will be unique.
And he is always experimenting. “I’d love to do larger structures—a pergola, fences, railings, porches,” he says. Bigger still, he adds, “I want to make a faux bois glass house, a conservatory.”
Faux bois garden furniture first took root in France in the 19th century, but artisan Michael Fogg puts a 21st-century American spin on it. The look? Rough sophistication. “Each piece is one of a kind,” Fogg says.
Where to See It
Faux bois by some of the country’s leading artists resides outdoors, but you have to know where to look.
- Brackenridge Park in San Antonio: faux bois bridge by artist Dionicio Rodriguez
- Witte Museum in San Antonio, adjacent to Brackenridge Park: treehouse by artist Carlos Cortés (studiocortes.com)
- Huntington Library’s Japanese Garden in San Marino, California: faux bois trellises and pergolas restored by artist Terence Eagan (fauxboisconcrete.info)
- Blog: fauxboisinconcrete.blogspot.com.
Photography: Jonny Valiant
Produced by Doris Athineos