Furniture and cardboard: believe or not, it's the perfect match

Cardboard furniture. Tables, chairs and bookcases born as experiments are today veritable productions used in shows, sports events and have even established their place in museums.

Laura Badalucco

Moveable furniture that adapts to different situations, that can appear and disappear according to needs, that has economy as its strong point. This is some of the input that has led several designers worldwide to produce chairs, tables, bookcases, armchairs using a very well known material -corrugated cardboard - in an unusual way. They are often furnishings that are sold flatly folded and can be easily assembled and dismantled, usually without he need for any tools except one's own hands.

Cardboard furniture embodies the idea of something transient and fleeting, but also of something free and versatile. Hence it is perfect for the research of continuous change, this sort of roaming nomadism which has grown increasingly popular in these last few years. And for this reason, this furniture has found fertile ground for its development. To this factor, we must also add environmental issues. Recycled and recyclable material, corrugated cardboard represents the emblem of material to be fully exploited in all its potential and the challenge for designers is not to contaminate it with other materials. Cardboard furniture is made exclusively with corrugated cardboard, appropriately shaped and folded following not only indications coming from the packaging field and from the papermaking experience, but also from the influence of art forms such as origami. Corrugated cardboard has thus been admitted in fields that were unusual for it: from packing material to furnishing material present not only in the houses of the younger generations and in offices, but also and above all in places of culture.

DESIGNERS AND ARCHITECTS FASCINATED BY CARDBOARD. In the past, several architects and designers have been struck by the potentialities of corrugated cardboard as material to make furnishings. This is true especially when research brought to the fabrication of simple and economic objects suitable for mass production. An example is Peter Murdoch.

In 1963, when he was still a student at London's Royal College of Art, Murdoch designed Spotty, a chair for children made in corrugated cardboard produced by International Paper. The chair was sold in a brightly painted colour version, flatly folded. A few pre-defined folds sufficed to make the chair sittable. In 1967 the same designer produced an entire series of furnishings, among which a chair and a table which he christened with the name of Those Things. These furnishings received one of the most important English awards for design and were produced by Perspective Design, the company created by Mr. Murdoch.

Spotty is considered one of the icons of Pop Design also because its very reduced cost has made it a perfect object for mass production, fully embodying the pop spirit. A few years later, in 1972, American architect Frank Gehry designed a series of furnishings having decisively unexpected characteristics. Easy Edges were corrugated cardboard seats composed in a completely different way with respect to previous or future solutions. The sheets were glued one to the other so as to assume a surprising three-dimensionality. Not materials folded for the purpose, but filled material in which the formal reference to the waves typical of corrugated cardboard emerged to the outside and became a fundamental element of the product itself.

Gehry was interested in experimenting the potential of an economical and versatile material like cardboard and to evaluate its capability of becoming furniture. Just like in his architectures, the result is unusual. The characterizing element of the Easy Edges, differently from the experiments that were developed subsequently, is not the light weight of the objects, but the solidity and resistance that the sheets assume when they are bound together. A second difference is that in these armchairs the seat is not comprised by the cardboard sheet, but rather by the ensemble of the thicknesses of the various sheets. Thus, a "comb-style" texture is obtained that leads to the paradox reference of the veins typical of wood and expresses itself as an intrinsic characteristic of this material.

Gehry's chairs are almost sculptures, made by gluing various sheets of corrugated cardboard together without the need for any other finishing or print, so they are foldable and will maintain their three-dimensionality during their entire life span. This series of furnishings was constantly enriched to include 17 different products and remained in production for some years. The theme of corrugated cardboard was then taken up by Gehry again in 1982 with the Experimental Edges, a re-visitation of the projects proposed ten years earlier.

AROUND THE WORLD. The examples presently more interesting of corrugated cardboard furniture come from France and Sweden. The Parisian group Quart de Poil' has attained great success with Meubles Carton, an entire corrugated cardboard furniture collection produced by themselves and designed by Olivier Leblois and Essaime. The company was born in 1993 from the collaboration between Cle and Millet and other French designers, combining innovation and respect for the environment.

Quart de Poil's collection is comprised of a series of pre-shaped sheets to easily assemble and dismantle to obtain chairs, desks, bookcases, separés, but also accessories such as CD-holders, bottle holders, dispensers, all very handy and very resistant.

These objects represent an ideal furniture solution and have also found their space in shows and cultural exhibitions. One of the chairs of the Meubles Carton collection, the Fauteuil Carton T41, has also become part of the permanent collection of many museums around the world: from the Museum des Arts Decoratifs in Paris to the Guggenheim Museum in New York, from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London to the Museo Vitra. The Meubles Carton made by Quart de Poil' have gone around the world.

At the Olympic Games in Sydney, particularly attentive to the environmental problems that such an event may cause, side by side with cutlery, straws and bags made in Mater-bi (a biodegradable plastic material derived from corn starch) for the Olympic Village Quart de Poil's corrugated cardboard chairs, armchairs, tables and bookcases were chosen and decorated by artists coming from the entire world. Another example of particular interest is given by the Swedish production of ReturDesign born in 1992 from the enthusiasm of Russian architect Sergej Gerasimenko. After moving to Stockholm, Gerasimenko began to design cardboard furniture for his daughter, using from his passion for origami as the basis. As the child grew, so did the production of ReturDesign where today, besides cradles and children's toys, one can find tables, chairs, bookcases also used to furnish public places. As Gerasimenko states, "corrugated cardboard is a natural, harmonious material having optimal structural characteristics. The perfect material for an environmentally sustainable future." Furthermore, this furniture develops creativity, especially children's.

The furniture pieces can be modified as children grow. They can be colored and decorated even by small children. And, once the furniture is worn out, they can be thrown into the paper recycling waste. Because it is destined prevalently for children or for public places, ReturDesign's furniture is made fire resistant by a special saline solution and thus follows EC norms.

CARDBOARD FURNITURE MADE IN ITALY. In Italy, several experiments have been carried out using corrugated cardboard.

The most interesting ones are the works of Marco Giunta, architect from Milan, designer of furniture, accessories, display units and cardboard packaging who, in 1995, founded a company called Disegni. Today, this company commercializes the corrugated cardboard solutions proposed by Giunta for the home, office and for special events such as shows and exhibitions. In one of the many articles written about him, Giunta sustains that "cardboard represents a challenge on several levels: to generate a solid and sturdy piece of furniture without adding other materials, to explore the different approaches to the project by imagining cardboard as one of the products of the future, and to bring novelties to the collective imagination that identifies sturdiness with materials defined as resistant such as wood, metal, plastic. These characteristics and above all its internal strength through folds and fittings, favour the transformation of the cardboard - a two-dimensional sheet - into a product."

To promote the re-thinking of materials such as corrugated cardboard that have been traditionally considered as belonging to the world of packaging, in the last few years competitions have been held. In 1998, for example, during the Salone del Mobile Furniture Exhibition in Milan, the results of the "RiOggetto, Recuperandocrea" (Re-object, Recover and Reuse) competition, promoted by the Legambiente Environmental Association with the patronage of the Department for Environmental Protection of the Italian government were presented.

The competition was aimed at exploring the design potential of reusing materials with particular attention to the functions of sitting, playing and throwing, so as to stimulate creativity in young people. Among the products presented were also experiments using corrugated cardboard. And among these, Curva avvolgente by Gianluca Nieddu represented once again an alternative way of considering corrugated cardboard. In this seating element, almost a chaise longue, the ability of cardboard to withstand slight deformations while stilI maintaining its qualities intact was examined. Comprised of corrugated cardboard and assembled through the use of two small ropes such as the ones used in rolling shutters, this chair can vary its shape according to the tension exercised on two lateral ropes. Corrugated cardboard continues therefore to surprise for its potential as material for furnishings and this fact can represent a further stimulus for young designers.

Login or Register to publish a comment