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The cardboard creations of Australian Anthony Dann reflect his core values of sustainability and simplicity, yet still find favour in Milan. Sarah Harris tracks down the 30-something origami wizard on his home turf

Anthony Dann is fascinated by cardboard – not something many of us would admit to. ’It’s not that I’m cardboard-obsessed,’ he says, ’but I have always been inspired by clever packaging, and the origami practice of folding one sheet of paper into a sculptural form.’

What started out in 2006 with a few recycled bicycle boxes and a torn-out magazine image of the Arc de Triomphe, has since blossomed into Paper Tiger/ a collection of environmentally sustainable folded objects crafted from recycled paper, card, felt and plastic. No glues, fasteners or Allen keys are required – each item tabs and slots together from flat-packed form, while his lightweight cardboard stools can bear a 150kg load.

Like his products, Dann is a master of understatement. At his crowded booth at Melbourne’s first Design Made Trade event, which was part of last month’s annual State of Design festival, the retiring 33-year-old Brisbane-born designer hovered noiselessly in the corner while design industry professionals and fellow exhibitors gasped over the ’simplexity’ of his products.

The designer may be quiet, but his products shout their design message clearly and boldly. Dann’s signature Paper Tiger stool was first released in 2007 and has since won the Indesign Launchpad Award for Sustainability, attracting the attention of leading Italian product designer Giulio Cappellini. ’I was invited to show one of my stools at Cappellini’s studio in Milan and folded in front of them,’ explains Dann. ’There were a lot of “belissimos”, and they said their lives would be made a lot easier if more designers came with resolved products like that.’

Seduced by the chic simplicity of the design, Cappellini asked Dann to further develop his range to include a bookshelf made from recycled Echo Panel felt, which was finally presented at this year’s Milan furniture fair.

The environment figures strongly in Dann’s work. ’I have always wanted to design objects that were somehow aligned to my core values,’ he explains. He started his career designing Australian outdoor equipment, following a degree in industrial design at the University of Queensland. After hours, he would use his access to factories to begin experimenting with new, environmentally sustainable materials, such as hemp laminate, to develop furniture and lighting products.

’The work I did with backpacks and outdoor equipment was all part of a strong interest in trying to rediscover a connection with nature,’ says Dann. ’Every one of my products is about being able to manufacture locally to the point of distribution, using simple, sustainable materials that can be made in any capital city. It is also crucial for my products to be able to flat-pack down and transport.’

Of course, cardboard furniture is nothing new. American architect and furniture designer Frank Gehry experimented with the structural properties of corrugated card during the 1970s with his iconic Wiggle chair, while prefabricated housing and flat-pack furniture are cemented within the canon of late-20th century design. So what distinguishes Dann from the rest?

’The objects created by Gehry were sculptural, and decorative – not concerned with addressing issues of mass production, affordability and material wastage,’ says Dann, who also trained as an architect. ’My designs evolved around the idea of temporariness, involving graphic play and mass-produced travelling flat-packs, available for extremely low cost. It’s less about a single chair and more about a whole movement towards designing in a more environmentally sustainable way,’ he adds.

Dann is currently exploring branding his cardboard stools with customised graphics for cafés, bars, exhibitions, events and music festivals. He has designed temporary furnishings for two local cafés, a rooftop cinema and this year’s State of Design festival. ’The beauty of the cardboard chair is that it’s a blank canvas. Businesses can do something fresh and new every few months. It provides them with a material and graphic that can be recycled, opening up exciting possibilities for visually changing environments.’

As the design community faces the twin challenges of climate change and economic uncertainty, Dann’s simple message of strength and sustainability offers a refreshing alternative. ’The limitations of sustainability are actually exciting opportunities for me,’ says Dann. ’Like the rules of origami, where you start with a single sheet, the folding is the limitation and it generates infinite possibilities.’

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