Feature: Thinking outside the box – the rise of cardboard architecture & design

The best thing about writing? Learning and exploring something new every time! In this article, I unfold the beauty of cardboard, explore the rise of cardboard furniture and how it is helping transform both commercial and not-for-profit sectors. Would love for you to read it x.

cardboardbox

We are used to thinking of cardboard as a fragile, non-durable material, its use limited to packaging other material; an evoker of memories of primary school and hot glue, and the dreaded in-betweens of moving houses and flat-packed Ikea goods.

But what if I were to tell you that cardboard has steadily risen from substitute to feasible industrial design/construction material; a viable alternative to timber in furniture? That Ikea is now selling cardboard as furniture [1]?

Thinking outside the box

Frank Gehry: Wiggle Side Chair 

 

In design terms, cardboard furniture really made its mark following Frank Gehry’s seminal Easy Edges (1969-1972). Up until that point, cardboard was seen as a light alternative to traditional furniture material such as timber, but could not compete in terms of sturdiness with plastic. Easy Edges changed this, transforming cardboard from an everyday material into a robust and sturdy furniture alternative – the most famous example being the Wiggle Side Chair.

 

 

For Gehry, inspiration seems to have come so simply:

One day I saw a pile of corrugated cardboard outside of my office – the material which I prefer for building architecture models – and I began to play with it, to glue it together and to cut it into shapes with a hand saw and a pocket knife. [2]

What I love about this Gehry quote is that it captures the very essence of innovation. It was only when Gehry opened his mind to cardboard – going beyond his previous views and preferences – that he unlocked its real potential. It was his willingness to play that allowed the ordinary to become extraordinary, and led to an increased appetite by architects and designers alike to test and manipulate cardboard’s limits.

Many have since exploited the natural properties of cardboard (e.g. sturdiness, stiffness, springiness and weight), creating appropriate load-bearing structures without the need for connecting material such as glue, and addressing its less desirous properties – cardboard can now be made both waterproof and fire-retardant, thus increasing its durability [3].

They’ve also successfully experimented with what I refer to as cardboard’s paradox: it is both a light and strong material. As an example, foldtheory stools are capable of holding >200kg in weight, but can be folded and packed away with relative ease. The secret lies in both the design (i.e. appropriate load bearing) and the fold of the cardboard itself, with corrugated or honeycombed forms proving most popular for furniture. Computer programs have greatly aided this process, allowing designers to manipulate these folds to create visually appealing, robust structures.

Perhaps most surprisingly, cardboard can have a competitive edge in earthquake-prone areas over seemingly more ‘durable’ and ‘sturdy’ structural materials such as cement. This discovery led world-renowned architect Shigeru Ban to increasingly use cardboard (as a form of paper) in his work:

The first time I used paper was for an interior, but I realized it was strong enough to be used as a structural element — to actually hold up the building. Wood and paper can stand up to earthquakes where concrete can be destroyed. In other words, I discovered that the strength of the materials is unrelated to the strength of the building [4].

Ultimately, the current trendiness of cardboard is not solely due to its cheapness (though this helps), but rather its lower comparable ecological footprint [5]. Its pre-production and production footprint is much lower than more durable material, owing to its recyclability and minimal transportation costs:

  • a large percentage of cardboard used in furniture is made of recycled fibres, reducing waste
  • cardboard can be packed flat, minimising energy expenditure in transportation
  • cardboard can be folded, unfolded, refolded, ready to be reused again and again.

Unfolding cardboard’s potential

Thanks to this radical shift in thinking, you only need to search for ‘cardboard design’ to watch a beautiful world of beige unfold on your screen in the most unexpected and delightful ways.

Cardboard is now being used as a cost-efficient and portable construction material for trade show stands and temporary installations, something that can be quickly installed and packed away for future use, without the noise of and need for power drills (and all the expenses that come along with this). While many cardboard designers are interested in the college student market (e.g. creating flat-packed rooms [6]), entire office spaces are being fitted with durable cardboard furniture [7].

For me, some of the most visually striking and beautiful local projects (Aus) are those of cardboard architect Tobias Horrocks (foldtheory, follow on Instagram). His work is both versatile and resourceful; by creating a simpler design, we are able to more readily reuse the cardboard furniture he creates without the need for glue or other material that may compromise its eco-credentials. This simplicity also serves to accentuate the elegant design and composition of his work, challenging us to see the real beauty of cardboard:

 foldtheory: Melbourne Art Bookfair

 foldtheory: Secret River exhibition

 foldtheory: Log Bookshelf

Having previously worked in the Australian charity regulator (ACNC), I find the real cardboard story to be its remarkable impact on the not-for-profit sector.

Cardboard has managed to succeed where other materials have failed. Its quick, easy transportation and assembly make it ideal for creating temporary housing for those affected by crises, as exemplified by Ban’s incredible work in Japan, Rwanda and New Zealand [8]. This has not only quickened the pace of recovery operations, but also reduced the impact of these crises on the environment and people in surrounding areas. To name a few examples, displaced people no longer need to chop down nearby trees to create housing, and are unlikely to be lulled into remaining in the make-shift housing once the crisis is over. Unlike aluminium, cardboard’s low value also means that it will not be disassembled and sold in the market by those desperate for a source of income [9].

5 Shigeru Ban architects: Cardboard cathedral

Smaller charities and not-for-profits have also tapped into the benefits of cardboard, with organisations such as ‘Adaptive design’ using cardboard to help create customised furniture for children with disabilities, allowing them to interact with their classmates at standard-sized tables [10].

Can cardboard cut out its future?

It’s safe to say that cardboard furniture will be with us for a long time; look no further than the fact that variants of the Wiggle Chair are still sold today [11], forty+ years after Easy Edges made its debut.

Just how big cardboard will be ultimately depends on two things.

Firstly, from an architectural perspective, further research is required on cardboard’s mechanical and physical properties for it to play a more significant role in the building and construction world – particularly its inherent fire and damp resistance issues [12]. I would add that this also needs to be considered in light of the country-specific laws that would need to be met to allow it to be used as a construction material. This will not be an easy task, but at least there are plenty of contemporary examples which demonstrate the feasibility and safety of structures that have utilised cardboard.

Secondly, to truly push cardboard beyond the early adopters and niche, eco-friendly market, marketers will need to work very hard to shift consumer and business attitudes towards it. While my own experience tells me that we tend to be obsessed with the new and the shiny, I do hold out hope for this.

For what our cardboard story proves is that innovation and success can come in revisiting, redefining and making better use of our relationships with what often is sitting right in front of us. Essentially, cardboard marketers, like all marketers, will need to work hard to redefine our notion of aesthetics and rekindle our love of play – this is what Ban is touching on when he talks about the enduring popularity of this work:

Even something that I intended as a temporary structure, like a paper church I made in Kobe in 1995, can end up being permanent. That church was relocated to Taiwan in 2006, after they had an earthquake there, and it still exists today. Ultimately, what determines the permanence of a building is not the wealth of the developer or the materials that are used, but the simple question of whether or not the resulting structure is supported — loved — by the people.

Architecture made simply for profit — even if it’s in concrete — is in fact temporary… However, if you make architecture that is loved by the people, then regardless of what it is made of, it will be kept. [ 13]

Farah Beaini is a freelance writer and spoken word poet (follow her blog yesbutmaybenot). The author thanks cardboard architect Tobias Horrocks from foldtheory for his assistance in researching the history of cardboard design and architecture. Tobias’s work and contact details can be found on his website foldtheory and Instagram @cardboardarchitectOriginally published on LinkedIn.

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