Paper’s back

Innovative designers are using paper to make furniture, clothes, jewellery and even buildings, a trend which is highlighted at The Crafts Council’s latest exhibition. Miriam Cadji takes a look at some interesting examples

This week sees the opening of a new exhibition at the Crafts Council: On Paper – New Paper Art. With a two-month run and a host of related events, such as a symposium and an array of educational workshops, it seems that this understated material is being taken extremely seriously.

The show’s curator, Jane Thomas, confesses she was initially unsure of paper’s significance among contemporary artists, so she placed an ad in the Artists Newsletter to gauge the response. Overwhelmed by the huge number of submissions, Thomas whittled the 460 entries down to the 40 international exhibitors included in the show. Two thirds of the artists are home-grown, but of the international contingent half, perhaps predictably, are Japanese.

The show is divided into four distinct sections: Texts and Messages – looking at the sculptural form of the book; New Folding – which deals with origami and showcases the work of Japanese sensei Akira Yoshizawa; Cut and Constructed – where 3D forms are created by stitching, weaving, riveting and glueing pieces of paper together; and finally, Nature and Spirit – which looks at the work of artists inspired by the natural world. The result is deliberately eclectic, and Thomas aims to demonstrate the diverse possibilities of this often overlooked material.

“Paper is not represented in the same way as other materials like ceramics or textiles,” she says. “We have preconceived notions of value and paper is seen as non-durable and not worth collecting. The public collections have a knock-on effect, and paper’s market value is diminished as a result.”

The enduring appeal of paper can be traced back to Britain in the 1960s. It was a time for fun, affordable, throwaway design, where ideas and originality were more important than longevity or tradition. Paper was the perfect material to symbolise the ethos of the day: cheap and easy to procure, it was used to make everything, from dining sets to underwear. Paper garments were the epitome of high fashion, destined to be worn and washed once only. Dresses were generally cut to a simple A-line and stuck out trapeze-like due to the heavy, pulpy mix required to guard against tears and folds. Nevertheless, they graced the covers of Vogue and an early issue of Nova, for which the then fashion editor Molly Parkin persuaded Ozzie Clarke to design a paper wedding dress. To accessorise the ensemble, the stylist chose paper jewellery by husband and wife team Wendy Ramshaw and David Watkins, then known as Something Special.

As testimony to the trend’s renaissance, last year Ramshaw and Watkins’ book The Paper Jewellery Collection was published by Thames & Hudson. Thirty-five years on from their original collection, the duo has refused to abandon their favourite material. “It’s a beautiful material to design with,” explains Watkins, who heads the metalwork and jewellery department at the Royal College of Art. “Even conventional A4 office paper folds and cuts so cleanly – it’s an extraordinarily high-quality industrial material, incredibly light and strong.”

An added dimension to paper’s attraction today is the importance placed on using environmentally friendly materials. With the motto “rethink, reduce, recycle”, Swedish cardboard furniture group ReturDesign has launched a growing collection of paper chairs, tables and bookshelves. It guarantees that all its furniture will last at least a year and each piece comes flat-packed and is assembled with Velcro. Although it may sound radical, paper furniture is nothing new. It dates back to 1850, when French furniture-makers made rococo chairs and cabinets out of papier mâché or carton bouilli, but it was 100 years before paper furniture was made affordable.

However, the gap between art pieces and commercial furniture is closing, and few home offices or student flats today would be incomplete without the necessary paper accoutrements from Muji and Ikea. Arguably the first example of commercial paper furniture was the Spotty chair by RCA graduate Peter Murdoch, launched in 1963. This child’s chair, made from polyethylene-coated laminated paper, was sold as a flat-pack and simply assembled by folding along the pre-scored lines. Murdoch later used the same technique to design the paper concessions stands at the Mexico Olympics in 1968.

David Bartlett, a contemporary of Murdoch at the RCA, designed a huge range of paper furniture that included chairs, bookcases, coffee tables and playhouses, which stole the show at the Ideal Home Exhibition when it was launched in 1965. Last year, Bartlett was commissioned by Tom Dixon to produce some cardboard furniture for Habitat. Covered in silver paper, the chair and coffee table were put into production in time for the Millennium.

Although Bartlett agrees that, in many ways, cardboard furniture is ideal for the nomadic way of life common to most city dwellers – lightweight and collapsible, it is easily transported from one location to another – he is convinced that paper has remained a low cost, trend material. “People just don’t believe you can sit on it – they sort of smile as if you are mad, and slowly walk in the opposite direction,” he says. As a result, most of his work with paper has been in the form of private commissions. One of his patrons is style guru Isabella Blow, who commissioned Bartlett’s furniture for her homes in Paris and London and has now asked him to design a paper sofa. She proudly declares that her paper dining table and chairs have lasted four years.

It is clear that this humble material, in the right hands, can become a prestige item. In 1969, US architect Frank Gehry started to experiment with paper. He developed his own range of laminated, corrugated cardboard furniture, culminating in the Easy Edges series in 1972, which was relaunched by Vitra in 1992. In the 1980s he returned to paper to create the Experimental Edges range, which includes the Wiggle chair, still in production by Vitra today.

But the architect best known for his use of paper is Japanese designer Shigeru Ban. His Carta range of recycled paper tube furniture, designed in 1999 for Cappellini, is a miniaturisation of his large-scale structures – among them the Issey Miyake Design Studio gallery and the Paper House (both in Japan) and the Japanese Pavil

ion at Expo 2000 in Hanover – all made out of giant, recycled paper tubes. As such, when paper was the material chosen to construct the Local Zone at the Millennium Dome, Ban was called in as technical advisor. Also on the team was building technology expert group B Consultants, which explored ways to prevent the paper absorbing humidity in the air that could make it “creep” and sag. To protect the material from its two enemies, moisture and fire, careful research into adhesives, intumescent varnishes and waterproof coatings was required.

Significant technical advances since the 1960s have allowed designers to revisit paper with greater success than ever before: Hussein Chalayan’s delicate paper garments in 1995 were made using Du Pont’s carefully engineered synthetic paper, Tyvek, which is waterproof and resistant to tearing. Packaging company Papermarc Merton recycles waste paper and board in its mill in south Wales. Offering an environmentally friendly alternative to polystyrene containers, it supplies packaging for the food industry and has developed puncture-proof, laminated paperboards for ice-packed products, such as fish, that are sufficiently water resistant to withstand three days’ transit. These improved materials are arguably too removed from the original article to simply call themselves “paper”; they are perhaps better described as composites. According to B Consultants director Graham Jennings, “Paper may seem green and cheap, but in the final analysis it tends to have more and more layers added to it to make it work. If you looked into the chemistry of paper now, you’d be pretty surprised at what you find.”

The technical knowledge gained from the Local Zone has now been applied to another innovative structure: a prototype cardboard school. Designed by Cottrell and Vermeulen Architecture, Westborough Primary School is on course to be completed later this month. The building is covered in a new cladding made from cellulose and cement to ensure it remains watertight, but the structure and internal finishes are all made from cardboard.

It is clear that the revived interest in paper has nothing to do with nostalgia. Even with the increased use of the computer, paper remains a crucial material, used by innovative designers to conceptualise their work at the early model or sketch stages. For many it presents a welcome break with the virtual world, and offers an opportunity to create something tangible. The seductive appeal of early sketch work is perhaps difficult for some designers to shake off, and as a result, paper is sometimes used for the finished object – whatever its scale.

On Paper – New Paper Art is at the Crafts Council, 44a Pentonville Road, London N1, from 5 July until 2 September

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