Lately, cork has been making a comeback as a chic wallcovering. It always makes me think of one of my favorite historical spaces, Marcel Proust's early-20th-century Paris bedroom at 102 boulevard Haussmann. For Proust, cork wasn't just an aesthetically appealing material, but a literal shield against the outside world.
Marcel Proust (1871-1922) was a French writer whose most famous work is In Search of Lost Time (A La Recherche du Temps Perdu), which is often described as one of the seminal works of modern literature. Proust was asthmatic and sickly, and was therefore forced into a sheltered and somewhat sedentary lifestyle. Toward the end of his life, he rarely left his bedroom, and actually rarely even got out of bed, which was where he did his writing.
Proust's novel was an exploration of memory and subjectivity, and likewise, writing his novel was a totally inward experience. He evidently felt that in order to write, he needed to block out the enervating noise of the outside world. So Proust lined his bedroom with cork panels, which he felt served as both soundproofing and a kind of sponge for dust. He also shuttered his double windows and drew closed his heavy blue satin curtains — dude wasn't kidding around about blocking out the world. His only light source was a green-shaded lamp. Afraid of drying the air with artificial heating, Proust sat with a fur-lined coat over his feet. By the time he moved out — against his will, in 1919 — the cork walls and ceiling were black with grime and soot.
So, obviously Proust was kind of a special case. He chose cork not for its aesthetics or (obviously) its sustainability (though it is sustainable!), but because he felt it insulated the room from noise and absorbed away harmful dust. The cork may have also served to literally soften the hard edges of his existence. Which, if you think about it, is a pretty good feature for a bedroom.
Proust's bedroom is recreated at one of my favorite museums, the Musée Carnavalet in Paris (top image), and I've always been a sucker for the romance of this effete neurotic guy hermetically sealing himself in a cork-lined room in order to create a work of genius.
Images: 1. Musée Carnavalet; 2. Zoffany via OreStudios; 3. Spicer + Bank.