Looking slightly worse for wear underneath large sunglasses and a tweed cap, Giles Miller is, nevertheless, affable and enthusiastic. The previous night, there was a big party, he explains – he has been busy showing his collection with the rest of Farm Designs, the collective he co-founded with three other members, but the shadow of a hangover is no dampener to his enthusiasm.
We sit down on two versions of Miller’s most recent creation, the Exbox Chair, made entirely out of cardboard. Mine is larger and covered in an orange felt cushion cover; his is smaller and the corrugation is exposed (Miller doesn’t like covering it; he believes it to be the most attractive aspect of cardboard as a material). As I express concern about the chairs’ ability to withstand our weights he explains that the strength of cardboard is all in the direction of the corrugation.
I also express concern about the longevity of one of Miller’s most popular designs: his cardboard laptop case. Don’t they get ruined in the rain, I ask? The answer is, no – they are covered with a water-repellent film and cardboard is a lot sturdier than people think. To prove his point, Miller shows me the laptop case he has been using for a year and, though slightly worn, it is entirely intact, functional and still remarkably easy on the eye.
Miller may only be 24, but his cardboard designs have made him hot news. He is celebrated by the Green consumer press as one of the few designers to have made sustainability sexy, but the design industry appears delighted with him, too. Perhaps it is because his designs are not only eco-friendly, but also genuinely innovative and beautiful.
His latest collection continues to use cardboard as its principal material, and features his unique and signature ‘fluting’ process to great effect. Fluting involves alternating the angle of the corrugation in cardboard to produce diverse shades and decorative patterns in the surfaces. The piece that best exemplifies this technique is the screen he made while still at Loughborough University, studying furniture design. Miller says it is his favourite piece. He calls the effect ‘holographic’.
His close relationship with cardboard grew out of a random and fortuitous first encounter. He was working on a bed for a homeless person at university in 2005, which he decided to make out of cardboard. Until this experience, Miller had been, as he puts it, ‘hopeless’ as a student. ‘I was not very thorough and I was not patient enough,’ he admits. This project made him ‘click into gear’. ‘It was the first time I had used cardboard and I was fascinated. I wanted to play around with it more,’ he recollects. ‘Cardboard has been overlooked as a material. I am lucky I found it.’
Miller’s laziness in developing projects properly at university is all the more ironic, when you consider that the pieces he creates now are so labour-intensive. ‘You cannot automate the production process with cardboard,’ he says. He ends up doing a lot of the carving with a fretsaw, too, since ‘lasers take away too much material’. He has started making more pieces that can be sold flat-packed, such as his almost surreal wardrobe (which Habitat has expressed an interest in), but mostly he sells items pre-assembled, because putting them together can be complex and time-consuming, even for their creator.
The environmental aspect of his work is obviously important to Miller. He tells me that the packaging company from which he sources his cardboard only works with sustainably managed forests.
However, he is not so keen to be known as the ‘King of Cardboard’, as one Green website has unofficially titled him. ‘I don’t want to limit myself,’ he says, ‘or be criticised for using leather, for example.’ (His bags have leather straps.) In an attempt to avert this sort of typecasting, and to learn how to work better with other materials, he has just started an MA in Design Products at the Royal College of Art.
Meanwhile, Miller plans to continue producing as a member of Farm, and is keen to pursue its ethos of working with British manufacturers and promoting British industries. As if to underline this sense of national pride, one of his most recent (and one of his only non-cardboard) pieces is, in fact, a laser-cut mirror of the Queen in profile, wearing pearls.
The four members of Farm are also working on a project in which they are researching the traditional industries of their home towns – textiles, lace, boat-building and leather, as it happens – and will use the same techniques and materials to create something new. As Miller says, ‘It’s good for them, and it’s good for us.’