Card sharp: Cardboard designs

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The Independent Online

Jason Iftakhar got his idea at Sainsbury's. The industrial design graduate wondered where all the cardboard boxes go, having served their initial purpose. He discovered that large supermarkets operate an 18-ton machine that compresses them into bales for transportation to recycling sites. What if, he posited, the cardboard could have a second life before expending energy in recycling? So he devised a simple tool that works with the compressing machine to cut out templates. Put lots of these together and the result is a sturdy cardboard bench. The tool is now being reconfigured to create a supermarket cardboard coffee table, chair and shelving, for which he is taking orders under his brand Raw.

"The challenge," says Iftakhar, "is to change our attitude to waste. We shouldn't just put it in the bin and let the community take care of it, but [should] appreciate that even waste has value and that a designer could give value to a plastic bag or bin-liner, materials we consider worthless." But there is also the challenge of changing public perceptions of cardboard furniture: surely it's unsupportive, short-lived, inclined to get grubby and a fire hazard? Not so.

"Cardboard is such a versatile material," he explains. "It's cheap, it can be packed flat and is lightweight, so energy expenditure in transportation is minimised; it can be printed on, laser cut, be waterproofed and made as fire-retardant as other furniture. Projects like mine are part of the process of changing the public attitude to cardboard."

Indeed, Iftakhar is not alone in bringing this material into our homes. Three months ago Cathy Henszey, a creative director with the fashion brand Perry Ellis, set up Cardboard Design to create podiums, benches and display stands for trade shows. But the company has already expanded its portfolio of products to include vases, bookshelves, dividers, a work station-style Project Table and its low, chic Zen Table. Most cardboard furniture is made of corrugated cardboard - essentially a wave formation between two layers that gives good side-to-side strength - but Henszey's pieces use honeycell cardboard, better for top-to-bottom strength and so ideal for chairs (a glass-topped table is planned to show off the "beautiful structure"). To prove her point, her website shows her and her business partner both supported by one of their tables. Add a clay or varnish coating and cardboard becomes tougher still.

"There is this misconception that cardboard furniture will fall apart," says Henszey, whose flat-packed furniture has a "no screws, no glues" policy to minimise its environmental footprint. "But the shipping industry increasingly uses cardboard palettes instead of wooden ones to minimise weight. Its raw look might not appeal to all, but it's not as serious as normal furniture. If you're going to spend $2,000 on a sofa, that's a big decision. If you don't like your cardboard furniture after a while, it hasn't cost you a fortune and you can pack it away."

When the company launched, it expected its main clientele to be students - furniture that's easily transported but can serve its purpose for a few years and then is easily disposed of. Indeed, Coventry University product design student Lewis Barnes was so tired of packing and unpacking his stuff each term that last year he devised a range of cardboard furniture that converted into packing crates.

Cardboard Design also believes its products may appeal to nurseries and mobile crèches, given that cardboard furniture can be packed in a boot and, once in situ, then be crayoned on for instant customisation. For that matter, it can be printed with wild patterns or a corporate logo. "I like the idea of cardboard furniture as an interactive product," says Henszey. "You don't expect to be able to paint wooden furniture. But people aren't hesitant to do that with cardboard."

Paperpod is a young British company that makes cardboard furniture and toys for toddlers, including chairs, play tables, playhouses, rockets and forts (well, they always do prefer the box to what's inside). "If you want a testament to cardboard's durability, kids' items have lasted two years or more and they really take some battering," says Paperpod's founder Paul Martin. "They've even been left outside in the rain and, once they've dried out, are just fine."

But it has been the design market that has really fuelled demand for cardboard furniture, both for its affordability - everything in Cardboard Design's range is £40 to £80 - and for its green qualities. The look is distinctive too, in its raw form or with its surfaces sanded or buffed to give different textural qualities, or coloured. Computer-aided design means cardboard can even be contorted into complex shapes and given a hardboard casing.

Certainly, cardboard is not a material new to the design community. US company Cardboard Chair designs made-to-order pieces - from stools to modular shelving and a rocking chaise. UK company Outabox launched two years ago with its BackEes product, an 800g cardboard picnic box that converts into a chair capable of holding 23 stone. It provides not only a branding opportunity but comfort where it normally is not found - at festivals and on the beach, for instance - and it has just won the British Invention of the Year (Leisure) at the British Invention Show.

"Cardboard is the new plastic," says Outabox founder Gayle Blanchflower. "We know how recyclable it is, but we forget its strength, even though we're happy to carry six bottles of wine in it, or have our fridge delivered in it."

Further back, the esteemed architect Frank Gehry experimented with cardboard furniture as a quick fix solution for outfitting his architectural practice. He created two lines of cardboard furniture, albeit from non-recycled "virgin" cardboard: Easy Edges (1969-73), in which he layered corrugated cardboard into curvy chairs and tables held together with hidden screws, and Experimental Edges (1979-82), misaligning the layers of heavily textured cardboard to create furniture with an undulating line and rougher edges. The Wiggle Chair became a design classic, and is still made by the furniture company Vitra.

"Gehry never intended that his pieces be expensive: that's a result of small-series production runs and the Gehry brand. But he was ahead of his time, given how more important environmental issues are now," says David Graas, a Dutch product designer who works in cardboard. He has had a hit with his two-stools-in-one design This Side Up (a reference to packaging). "Many designers now are working with materials that are more associated with garbage than design. But sooner or later every product becomes garbage. Using cardboard as a material is a chance to comment on that, to make people consider quite what will happen to their furniture when they're done with it. But cardboard also has a certain beauty - it's organic, simple but very smartly constructed."

Indeed, appreciation for this most humble of materials is on the rise. Australian architects Stutchbury and Pape have solved the problem of where to put all one's cardboard furniture, by devising a cardboard house for transportable emergency accommodation. A flat-pack frame with infill floor and wall panels held together with nylon wing-nuts, polyester tape and Velcro, it costs A$35,000 (£14,000) and can be assembled by two people in six hours - requiring, their website says, "no more skill to erect than an Ikea product", which may not be the best incentive. In response to the 1995 Kobe earthquake, Japanese architect Shigeru Ban has also devised houses made from fireproofed, waterproofed, load-bearing cardboard tube structures.

Might cardboard pieces even become collectible? The architect Sergej Gerasimenko founded the Swedish company ReturDesign 15 years ago to service a more progressive Scandinavian market with cardboard pieces. He notes how "cardboard furniture is always a good talking point - it presents a certain image, especially given that cardboard pieces don't have to look like boring boxes." But even he is surprised to find that the furniture he made in 1992 is now selling at auction for three times the price of a new piece. It has lasted well. And, in these more ecologically aware times, is looking better than ever.;;; www.jason;; www.paperpod.;

Across the board

Paperboard was invented in China in the 15th century, although the first commercial use - as a box - was not until 1817, in England.

Corrugated cardboard was devised as a way of packaging delicate goods. It was patented in England in 1856, when it was used as a liner for tall hats. In 1874 Oliver Long patented the corrugated cardboard as it would be recognised today - with a corrugated section sandwiched between two liners.

A corrugated box undergoes two industry-standard trials: the Box Compression Test, which tests its stacking strength, and the Mullen Test, which tests the box wall's strength against penetration.

The Flexo Folder Gluer is the industry's magic machine, able to print, cut, fold and glue flat sheets of board into boxes of all strengths and sizes at a rate of 26,000 boxes an hour.

A plastic-coated paper carton can take five years to biodegrade. Tin cans take 50 to 100 years, glass bottles up to 1 million years and plastic bottles never do. Paper takes two to five months.