Designers and celebrities have a new eco-sustainable, authentic material to champion: cardboard. Long derided as a “hobo’s IKEA,” it’s being used to make, among other things, furniture, handbags, pianos, even bridges. There are horse-print cardboard wall coverings in the changing rooms of Stella McCartney’s Paris store; English actor Colin Firth’s London-based furniture shop sells corrugated cardboard chairs, and the elite design firm Vitra offers Frank Gehry’s “Easy Edges” cardboard line.
In the upscale Toronto restaurant Mildred’s Temple Kitchen, cardboard stools complement leather sofas with suede and satin pillows. Designed by Vancouver-based Molo, these iconic “Softseating” pieces are now in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Installed in the restaurant last November, the stools no longer look new: cardboard tends to look “pretty beaten up” very quickly, says restaurant manager Jane McMahon, which is “apparently part of the appeal.”
Sarah Frater has written about cardboard for the London-based magazine Design Week. In her research, she was surprised by the number of products now being sold in cardboard, including laptop cases and seating. Cardboard has “a new wave of enthusiasts,” she says, because it is “alive with possibilities.”
Among those possibilities are a cardboard footbridge, reinforced with metal, built across the Gardon River in the south of France in 2007 by renowned Japanese architect Shigeru Ban (it was taken down a few weeks later for the rainy season), a cardboard grand piano that sounds like the real thing, built by the Swedish firm SCA Packaging, and cardboard grandfather clocks made by the London designer Giles Miller.
The Dutch branding firm Nothing has an entire office built out of cardboard, including stairs, desks and shelves. The cardboard office has a natural, rough-edged aesthetic; a renowned Russian illustrator has painted vignettes and figures on the cardboard walls. The decor tends to damage easily—someone recently ran into a plant box, and a piece broke off. Although broken furniture is not expensive to replace, it can take days to assemble and, says Bas Korsten, co-founder of Nothing, “you have to have spare parts and furniture lying about.”
Indeed, while cardboard products have been embraced by the avant-garde, ownership can present challenges. Cardboard can be treated to make it more resilient, but it’s also highly absorbent, and you need to be careful what you spill, says Glen Kadelbach, founder of Minnesota-based Innovative Cardboard, which manufactures a line of furniture, including tables, chairs and shelving. Cats and other scratchy animals are also off limits, he says.
On the other hand, if you’re not good at keeping things dry, or if you have young children, you can decide not to worry about spills and embrace the blemishes. The material marks quickly, Korsten says, but then “the coffee stains are part of the design.”
Sometimes, the products are praised by critics, but panned by the people who buy them. In 2006, the British baby-wear store Mothercare launched the cardboard crib, championed as “intelligent eco-design” by Treehugger and other environmental sites. Writing on a Web forum, however, one parent complained it was “completely impractical” since the mattress didn’t fit properly into the cardboard bed (probably because it had to be self-assembled). Others worried that it didn’t look safe and might collapse, with their progeny inside.
Safety hasn’t been an issue for Rick Thomchick, a Silicon Valley technical writer who lets his three-year-old daughter romp on his cardboard chairs. Thomchick built the armchairs after being inspired by the Gehry line. The finished products last several years but have now been banished to the garage because of their “distinct odour”—they “smell like paper pulp,” says their owner.
For Thomchick, cardboard furniture is more plaything than high-end decor, and durability is less of a concern than the doing-it-yourself challenge. Yet those who buy the pieces fully assembled, or who spend thousands of dollars on an item, may not be so happy. The designer items sold in showrooms may look fabulous now, says Gareth Williams, a professor at the London-based Royal College of Art, but in 30 years they could resemble “a pile of old boxes.”