Folding stuff

Cardboard is alive with possibilities. A new wave of enthusiasts is using it as room dividers, event decor and exhibition vitrines. Its eco-friendliness and low cost give it enduring appeal, says Sarah Frater.

It’s nothing new, of course. Way back in 1972, a young Frank Gehry designed a range of bonded corrugated cardboard furniture that was, as design folklore has it, so successful that he halted production lest he become better known for furniture than buildings. Gehry’s chairs reimagined cardboard as a sculptural and decorative material, something that still occupies a younger generation of designers. However, they’re also concerned with issues of mass production, material wastage and cost, and you see in their ideas an attempt to reconcile these strands.

Cardboard’s low cost was the main attraction for Taiwanese jeweller Chao-Hsien Kuo. For her exhibition at Helsinki Design Week she used inexpensive cardboard boxes to display her delicate flower rings, brooches and earrings, with the different textures of rough card and fine jewellery making her show one of the event’s design highlights. ‘Its unfinished feel provided a good contrast to the jewellery,’ says Kuo, who describes her work as ‘expensive’.

The basic cardboard unit was developed by the package design programme at the Institute of Design in Lahti, Finland, together with the manufacturer ER-Pahvityö. For the Helsinki show, Kuo’s husband and fellow jewellery designer Eero Hinsanen composed the boxes into display vitrines, and, although not mass-produced, the manufactured box provided considerable practical benefits. Kuo says they came flat-packed, and were flexible in how they could be arranged, from wall-hung cabinets to floor-standing stacks. ‘They’re also easy to transport and store,’ she says.

Cost was also a consideration for the Le Gun collective of illustrators and artists. They used acres of industrial sheet cardboard to create a temporary installation for a party in Shoreditch. The one-off project involved lining a room in cardboard and then filling it with life-size cardboard furniture, all decorated in Le Gun’s distinctive style. There were tables, chairs, sofas, pictures, rugs, a fireplace and domestic knick-knacks, plus two tallboys and a grand piano – a sort of cardboard kingdom with partygoers clearly charmed by its immersive design. ‘We’ve been working with cardboard for some time,’ says Le Gun member Chris Bianchi. ‘We just wanted to see how far we could take it.’

It’s a sentiment echoed by Stephanie Forsythe, the architecture-trained creative director of Molo. Forsythe’s interest in paper and cardboard began when she and her husband, and fellow Molo director, were involved in an architecture competition to find low-cost forms of flexible living. Inspired by concertina paper decorations from China, the pair developed the idea of telescopic paper room dividers that used a honeycomb structure. An extensive range of shape-shifting walls, stools, benches and loungers followed, as has an enthusiastic international clientele.

‘Artists and designers have always been drawn to paper and cardboard,’ says Forsythe. ‘It has little innate value and is so basic – literally a blank sheet – yet it has strength and beauty.’

The Molo range now comprises designs in tissue, craft paper and a water-resistant polyethylene-based non-woven textile that can be used outdoors, with new products set to launch at the Milan furniture fair in April.

Forsythe praises the acoustic and optical properties of cardboard, as well as its tactile and geometric appeal. ‘It’s the weak-to-strong aspect of honeycomb paper that’s so intriguing,’ she says.

Equally intriguing, albeit on a much smaller scale, is Transformer, a faceted cardboard coffee table that doubles as a seat. It’s the work of Central St Martins College of Art and Design furniture graduate Chun-wei Liao, who sells it via the Beyond the Valley store in London’s Carnaby Street, with a new version being launched at IMM Cologne later this month. The faceting looks like dinosaur spikes, or a punk rocker’s hairdo, although Liao says the idea was for the facets to cast different shadows in different light. ‘They move with the sun,’ he says. Transformer comprises 64 self-assemble cardboard pieces, which fold and slot into place. ‘My family owned a carton factory in Taiwan,’ says Liao, ‘and I wanted to explore the possibilities of ordinary, low-cost cardboard.’

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