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Chairman of the board

Jonathan Schofield started sculpting with cardboard pilfered from skips when he was an impoverished art student. Now his finely detailed constructions are wowing New York. David Usborne discovers there are no limits to the boarding champion's ambition
The $79,000 wedding bands and silver dinner sets made a dazzling spread in the windows of Tiffany's this winter. For many shoppers, however, the attraction wasn't diamonds and precious metal. It was cardboard.

Even in the bitter winds of New York's Fifth Avenue, passers-by were captivated by the artwork accompanying Tiffany's usual display of glorious jewellery. In each of its five windows stood a single, finely detailed wedding cake atop a Grecian column. The cakes and columns were made from corrugated cardboard.

Discreet cards identified the artist as one Jonathan Schofield. The 31 year old from Huddersfield isn't well known on either side of the Atlantic. It is an obscurity, however, that he may be about to lose.

It's no wonder that Schofield, with his raggedy dyed blond hair and playful eyes, is wearing an expression of mild astonishment these days. Such was the success of the cakes that suddenly he has more work than he can handle.

Since January, commissions for new pieces - all in cardboard, of course - have been pouring in. He has also been invited to contribute to a major summer exhibition in New York. Among his keenest supporters is Robert Rufino of Tiffany's, who oversees the shop's window displays and who took the gamble of giving them over to Schofield. The result, he says, was an avalanche of inquiries on the Tiffany's switchboard about the creations.

"I just think it's a great form of art," Rufino explains. "I don't think it's the cardboard itself that is unusual: what's unusual is what Jonathan does with it. It was about the detail and how intricate everything was and how it was so anal. People weren't sure what they were looking at. And then they suddenly realised and went `Wow!'"

Schofield's affair with cardboard began 10 years ago, when he was studying at the Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee. He had enrolled as a painter but rebelled against what he saw as the overly structured nature of his course. He declared that his real interest lay in sculpting. Disappointed, the teachers banished him to the school's basement and gave him six months to prove himself. The trouble was he couldn't afford the materials he needed.

"I had to go around stealing materials from the sculpture department, but that got a bit risky," he recalls. "In the end, I fell upon cardboard." Cardboard, after all, could be free. "I used to chase the binmen around Dundee, taking cardboard out of the skips before they got to them. I would get up early every Thursday morning and belt around taking my pick." He later discovered that virgin cardboard could be bought fairly cheaply. Even today, though, he occasionally spots a choice piece on the street and snaffles it.

It was with his MA project, however - a huge tank that was big enough to sit in - that Schofield began to see the potential of the medium. Penguin Books borrowed the tank and used it in London to promote the graphic novel Tank Girl. Soon afterwards came an exhibition in Glasgow of giant revolvers, made from card and covered with wallpaper.

Schofield, with his girlfriend of the time, Susan Anne McCarthy, also began doing workshops in cardboard sculpture at museums, arts festivals and, in the summer of 1997, at the Science Museum in London. Seated at a small table, with cardboard, ruler, scalpels and a glue gun, the couple took instant orders for objects, most of which were destined as gifts for children.

The Science Museum assigned security guards to keep the mums and dads in order as the twosome made animals, a violin, swords and scabbards (a favourite with boys), and even a cardboard engagement ring for a young man girding himself to propose to his girlfriend.

It was at one of these fairs that Schofield met Paul Roberts, who at the time ran the New York saleroom of auction house Phillips. Stunned by Schofield's genius, Roberts invited him to his home in Connecticut and commissioned him to do some displays for his company.

Among them was a rendition of the Chrysler Building spire, used to display a diamond, and a section of the Eiffel Tower, complete with cardboard rivets, to promote a sale of a Verneuil collection. For Roberts himself, Schofield made a copy of a stool originally crafted by the English woodworker William Kent. It was the stool that persuaded Rufino to give him the Tiffany's commission last August. Schofield, who now lives in Brooklyn, will focus on furniture for the summer exhibition, notably an ornate bureau that should be strong enough for daily use.

"When I started, I was using cardboard as a construction material," Schofield recollects. "But then I was covering it with wallpaper and what-have-you to make it look like something else. It's taken me 10 years to see the beauty of cardboard and let it come through."

Robust though his chosen material is, Schofield's greatest ambition seems just a bit barmy. Back in Scotland he scraped together the money for flying lessons, and now hopes to make a functioning cardboard aeroplane. Rain, he concedes, could be a problem: "I would only take it up on sunny days"