When Hungarian designer András Balogh showed his new Archeo line of bespoke pieces at the Milan Furniture Fair in April, the big question was: when was he going to take them out of their boxes? One design was made to look as though a new item of furniture was poking out at the corners of a packing box. Another saw a reclaimed, hand-made traditional chest seemingly embedded into a rough-hewn structure. But the general bemusement was caused less by the trompe l’oeil effect as by the use of a material usually forbidden in high-brow design circles: cardboard.
“If there was an artistic purpose it was to encourage people to think about cardboard in a new way,” says Balogh. “My interest has always been in how to elevate a material that is so humiliated despite its great capabilities. Price won’t change opinion – it’s cheap but, despite what many think, not that cheap. It’s recyclable so sustainability will prompt interest but what we need is an appreciation of its attributes: it has a sensual surface touch, it can be bent, cut, coloured and printed on, it’s very light and yet very strong. About the only thing it isn’t good for is garden furniture. Your chair starts to go soft ... ”
A decade ago, Balogh patented an origami-style system of folding and paper-clipping high-grade cardboard to give an item a structural strength 100 times its own weight, a system that he has more recently begun to use in a variety of products – from chairs to shelving, toys to vases. But, these days, he is not alone in his appreciation of the brown stuff.
The less design-savvy general public may still be resistant because of the association of cardboard with disposable packaging, but the design industry is slowly dragging it through the same process that plastic underwent.
The pace of change is slow but it’s building. Architect and furniture designer Frank Gehry was one of the more celebrated figures to experiment with cardboard, and that was back in 1972 with his Wiggle chair and Easy Edges series. But, as environmental product designer Jeremy Grove says: “Gehry could afford to be very honest with the material because he’s Frank Gehry, which gives the chair a value. Cardboard is still regarded as throwaway so you have to make its use less obvious to [be able to] make a product commercial.”
Grove has designed lamp bases made from cardboard that has been treated to give it a glossier appearance, an idea also pursued by Leo Kempf, creative director of Way Basics, a US company that has has developed a super-dense, water-resistant and veneered cardboard that can mimic other materials such as wood and is suitable for high-end products. “The need for disguise is there now but it’s on the turn as people get a proper understanding of what paper can be used for,” says Kempf.
Certainly word is spreading. This month sees the launch of a new book Outside the Box: Cardboard Design Now (Black Dog Publishing £19.95), which documents the uptake of the material. Sweden’s ReturDesign and, in the US, Cardboard Design and Lwin Design, are part of a wave of design companies now exploring cardboard’s potential. Dutch designers Joost van Bleiswijk and Alrik Koudenburg have created an office for Amsterdam-based ad agency Nothing made entirely of cardboard. Designer Giles Miller, whose cardboard-C range has recently gone into production and who launches a 3D cardboard surface treatment at London’s 100% Design event this month, has drawn the attention of retailers and lifestyle brands such as Stella McCartney, Selfridges and Bombay Sapphire, for which he created cardboard, single-use martini glasses.
Miller also designs a flat-pack furniture range in cardboard that, stylistically, nods towards more traditional furniture. “You have to surprise people into thinking about cardboard in a new context,” he adds.
The art scene is interested in cardboard, too; over the past few years, Chris Gilmour has built a reputation for his intricate cardboard recreations of life-size everyday objects, from typewriters to bikes and even a vintage Aston Martin.
Indeed, even for those not moving home or clearing out the attic, cardboard may be coming your way sooner than you think. With blue-chip companies as ever concerned about the functionality of their office furniture and, in some instances, the image it projects, cardboard is going corporate too. Cardboard Future is a company involved in discussions with design agencies and government departments to provide a solution: a rolling lease on cardboard desks which, once damaged, worn or simply no longer meeting requirements, can be taken away and recycled into a new or more suitable replacement.
“Making cardboard furniture aesthetically appealing has always been a big problem and until recently there wasn’t enough of an incentive to find alternatives to conventional furniture,” says Cardboard Future’s founder Rod Fountain. “Chief executives understand its benefits right away. The stumbling block is with middle managers who have to sell the idea to staff. People tend to read all sorts of things into being told they’re being given a ‘temporary’ desk ... ”
100% Design runs September 23-26 Earls Court Exhibition Centre, London SW5 www.100percentdesign.co.uk