Concrete takes on new life as artist Wanda Ellerbeck melds form, function and concept to create unique functional designs for the home. Ellerbeck, owner of Grotto Designs in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, says her design roots hearken back to a life dedicated to the fine arts.

She studied contemporary dance and classical ballet before moving into the visual and plastic arts. She studied sculpture and painting, earning a master's degree in Fine Arts from the Nova Scotiacollege of Art and Design, which led her to ten years of teaching and producing sculpture.

But it was her interest in the manipulation of materials, especially form and shape, which led her to the use of concrete in her second year of art college.

"I used concrete because of what it did...but at that time there wasn't anybody interested in concrete," says Ellerbeck.

Although Ellerbeck used many other materials in her art, concrete kept coming back into the work, so she decided to embrace it wholeheartedly. "I started making benches out of concrete for art gallery settings as part of my exhibitions," she says.

The mixing and designing of concrete was a result of her own research. When cutbacks left no full-time teaching positions, she researched the market began Grotto Designs, diving into concrete product development full speed. "As much as I would like to think an artist can do and be everything, my expertise was in sculpture and concrete, so that's what I did," says Ellerbeck.

"I researched the functional artwork potential of concrete and talked to experts like Buddy Rhodes, who was very encouraging," she adds.

Regarding the sale's process, Ellerbeck explains that though some people who enter her store know immediately what they want, others need help understanding the product. She often walks people through her portfolio and website to help them with ideas.

Next, her design approach includes getting to know the customer to determine whether they're traditional or contemporary, as well as figuring out how far they want to go with a specific piece.

"I step into their shoes, working with what they have and exchanging ideas at a fast rate. Sometimes it can take (meeting) more than one time," she explains about the process.

Ellerbeck says that in the end, people either respond to the product or not. "It's a niche market," she explains.

"I like client contact. I enjoy helping people achieve their dreams, and I live to help them enjoy the design aspect," she says. And people-person Ellerbeck says she'd never have a job where she doesn't engage with people and design.

Her inspiration comes from inside. "Design for me is a question of impulse," Ellerbeck explains. "Ideas are everywhere, but you need willingness and ability to recognize them. It's not rational decision, impulse involves your very awareness. It's what you pay attention to versus what you don't. If you give yourself permission to follow your notion and don't edit yourself, it creates a positive, open line of thinking."

Ellerbeck says that of her many sketches and ideas, only some get realized and produced, though she does push the limits once in a while -- especially if she has a client with an idea or an upcoming home show.

"Sometimes I make pieces just because I want to see them," Ellerbeck says. "That's the artist part. I haven't developed designs because I felt they were marketable, they just became successful."

"I allow myself to make one wingy design every two years. I allow myself to push notions every once in a while, otherwise I wouldn't do it," she adds.

Ellerbeck says she occasionally makes a functional piece with more to it just to see what happens, but she tries not to cross the line too much between what's acceptable and how far out she can get.

A lover of concrete for its humble imperfections, one thing Ellerbeck won't do is push a piece so far that it doesn't look like concrete anymore.

While working with concrete, Ellerbeck says she strives to maintain the basic integrity brought into refined pieces.

"I like concrete to always have some aspect to it. I'm considering going back to its roots...and seeing what would happen by bringing technology into it," she explains.

"The notion of concrete has changed over the past few years," she adds. "New technology is where I'm going now. I'm working at streamlining design and concepts, and finishing it off using technology."

At the same time, Ellerbeck says she doesn't ever want technology to override the product, and she's not caught up in technological capabilities. "Otherwise concept, function and form get left behind," she says.

Ellerbeck aims at keeping on the cutting edge instead of being one of the pack. Take her new line of concrete products -- her console tables, islands and pedestal sinks are offered in either contemporary "artsy" sculpture or simple traditional designs.

As for the future, Ellerbeck says she would eventually like to teach and run workshops, but not just about concrete. She says the inspiration is what keeps her motivated. "The ideas never stop!" she laughs.

For more information about Wanda Ellerbeck or Grotto Designs, click .

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