People are making furniture out of cardboard. And it looks like this
Nov 6, 2023, 3:42 PM
(Chris Abatzis, Courtesy Room in a Box)
(CNN) — In the wealthy neighborhood of Mayfair in London, Gallery Fumi — a contemporary design space — is showcasing a new collection of furniture. This would be no surprise were it not for the incongruous material these chairs and tables are made from: cardboard.
“Box” has been designed by British furniture designer Max Lamb, and utilizes cardboard boxes that had been building up in his studio. “I find it very difficult to throw things away”, he said, sitting on one of his creations. He finds beauty, he added, “in rubbish, or things that already exist and have already been disposed of.”
Although it is one of the cheapest materials available, and often discarded, cardboard is increasingly being used to create both high-end and affordable furniture. While various designers are experimenting with the material to craft provocative pieces, others are harnessing its potential as a seemingly sustainable option for furnishing your home.
Lamb cut, folded, assembled and layered cardboard boxes, and also used the material to create layers of paper maché. What has resulted is an intriguing collection of furniture, that retains elements of cardboard box aesthetics — cubist forms and packaging logos — but develops them with unexpected sculptural molding, compositions and earthy paints.
Despite the material’s perception as flimsy, the pieces have been designed to withstand practical use. Their strength results from the way Lamb built up layers of corrugated cardboard — the most impact-resistant kind — and used a glue-like mix of wheat and water.
Lamb’s new work fits into an ongoing story of cardboard furniture, with an iconic early example being Frank Gehry’s 1972 “Wiggle Side Chair,” part of the “Easy Edges” series the architect designed which embraced the unexpected strength and sculptural potential of layered corrugated cardboard. As a student, Lamb was inspired by Gehry’s works in cardboard, and subsequently created a cardboard table in 2000 that he says his parents still use.
More recently, another famous architect turned to the material to make furniture. Having deployed cardboard in innovative architectural projects, Shigeru Ban used it to create his “Carta” collection (1998–2015). Ban designed chairs, a stool, a chaise longue and table with slim cardboard tubes that had been treated with resin to make them waterproof, but combined them with more traditional materials including birch plywood and glass.
Since 2020, Berlin-based Ukrainian artist and designer Illya Goldman Gubin has been strengthening misshapen cardboard boxes using resin and fiberglass, and turning them into unusual seats, tables and shelves. The ongoing “Karton” series began in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic when Gubin turned to experimenting with creations that blurred lines between art and functional objects. “I wanted to add a new dimension to my art, something more approachable, that people could touch without needing permission,” he explained over email.
Gubin has “fond memories” of playing with cardboard boxes as a child, building make-believe homes and cars. “Cardboard feels simple, yet special,” he said. “Everyone’s had a cardboard box in their hands. Now, I wanted that same box to have a new purpose — to support us.” Gubin likes to describe the idea behind the project as: “what we once carried, can now carry us.”
Each of the pieces is unique; he uses the weight of his own body to mold boxes into various crumpled shapes. Although they look like glossy sculptures, the boxes are perfectly functional as seats or tables. “Even though (the pieces) seem delicate, they’re strong,” Gubin explained. “I wanted to make something that surprises the observer.”
Moving from the provocative to the practical, the Room in a Box brand — established in 2013 — offers simple and modular cardboard furniture to purchase, touted as both affordable and good for the planet. Using high-grade corrugated cardboard, the German brand promises its pieces — from bed bases to chairs and tables — can last for up to 10 years.
Room in a Box garnered attention through posts on TikTok last year, where videos related to cardboard furniture now have over 2.4 million views. The brand appeals to a young demographic who move around and need lightweight, easily transportable options, but don’t like the environmental impact of “fast furniture”.
Co-founder Gerald Dissen told CNN over email that Room in a Box’s pieces are far more sustainable than furniture in traditional materials, citing lower carbon footprints and less energy consumption due to the recycled and recyclable nature of its material, lightweight construction, and modular format.
But such qualities have also made cardboard a popular choice when it comes to the emergency deployment of furniture, particularly for refugees. In 2011, French designers NOCC, with entrepreneur Julien Sylvain, created the Leaf Bed, a cardboard bed designed to be used by people in refugee camps. With a simple design of pre-cut panels that are shipped with all of the tools and parts needed for assembly, the camp bed has been deployed by the UN Refugee Agency.
A cardboard manufacturer involved in the production of Leaf Bed, Smurfit Kappa, also collaborated with Edinburgh Direct Aid (EDA) in 2017 to send aid to refugee camps on the Lebanon-Syria border in cardboard boxes that could be converted into emergency furniture.
On a day-to-day basis, cardboard is used as an emergency shelter wherever we look. “We see cardboard on the streets; we see people using it as an insulating, protective material,” said Lamb, acknowledging how such use sits in contrast to his work. “Here I am just making bits of furniture in a gallery.”
Although his works may be collectible design pieces (the prices are only available on request), he says the project is a critical reflection on being “a producer of stuff,” and hopes it will demonstrate “the beauty and permanence” of cardboard as a material. “It can be a permanent part of our lives,” he said. “We don’t have to discard things that are secondary to the thing we’re buying or valuing most.”