Written by Taylor Scott Ross
Though now largely lost in a history saturated with designers, Jean-Louis Avril was a figure of exceptional visibility in a time when modernism was abundant, and through his vision and sensibility he exerted great influence on modern design. Avril should be not only recognized but renowned for his impact on the landscape of international design and material innovation generally, and for his contributions to the history of child design specifically. Known best for his work in lacquered cardboard, Avril designed an immense collection of simple and playful furniture and objects. His reimagining of this mundane material instilled a newfound whimsy in a product traditionally associated with packaging, and thus brought the material center stage in the international design community.
Avril was born in Saint-Nazaire, France, in 1935. He studied at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris, where he received a degree in architectural design. For further learning, he trained under architects Paul Herbé and Edouard Albert. During his apprenticeship he also became acquainted with the iconic architect and furniture designer Jean Prouvé. These French designers, especially Prouvé, were known for their use of sleek and minimal silhouettes and expressive relationships between solids and voids. The impact that these mentors had on Avril's work is clear. Similar to Prouvé’s, o Avril’s designs included volumetric forms that were juxtaposed with cutout and enclosed space, but he also introduced his own sense of playfulness and minimalism.
Working alongside many other great modernists, Avril found inspiration and influence all over. His own furniture explorations came at a time when experimentation was the norm, and in fact, he was not alone in his inclination to work with cardboard. Innovative uses of cardboard can be traced back to the seventeenth century, but traction really began in the 1954, when Buckminster Fuller designed a versatile cardboard geodesic dome for the the Milan Triennale. Subsequently, the design work of Peter Murdoch and Frank Gehry contributed to cardboard’s prevalence as a material in furniture construction. Gehry is responsible for some of the most iconic cardboard furniture designs known today, including the Wiggle chair and the Grandpa Beaver chair.
Interestingly, Avril’s use of cardboard, while surely influenced by growing trends, was highly situational. His father-in-law was a cardboard manufacturer in Loiret, France, and this enabled Avril to develop and produce the material conveniently and effectively. Contemporary cardboard technology included friction-fit joining, a construction method that incorporates slots for flat-packed pieces to link together; and stack lamination, a process of stacking profiles together to create a solid form. Avril’s father-in-law, however, specialized in a high-density fiberboard known as Celloderme. This unique product is created by stacking and rolling sheets of wastepaper and pulp. The recycled material is then compressed under intense heat, resulting in a highly durable and rigid sheet that can be thermoformed. Outside of Avril’s furniture creations, Celloderme has applications in industrial packaging, footwear, and organizational objects. The material is highly versatile, making it ideally suited for innovative furniture design, and Avril was able to enhance the Celloderme with his signature color-lacquer finish. This material direction established a precedent for Avril’s design aesthetic and his work.
A major moment in Jean-Louis Avril’s career came in 1967, when interior designer Andrée Putman approached him about furnishing a Saint-Tropez clothing store completely in Celloderme. This commission included several lacquered cardboard pieces, referred to as the Container Furniture collection and featured in Elle magazine. Between 1967 and 1973, dozens of Avril’s designs were then picked up and manufactured by Marty L.A.C. The publicization of his work gained him much popularity and opened opportunities to exhibit in the French Pavilion during the Montreal International Exhibition, at the 1968 Milan Triennale, and at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris.
Container Furniture—which included several pieces for children—ranged widely in scale and function, but a cutout, curvilinear form language and lacquered Celloderme materiality unites all of the work. A signature piece from the collection is the Standard chair. This playful take on a barrel chair is designed in adult proportions but possesses a childlike quality. Featuring playful colors, oblong cutouts, and a sleek wrapping back, the Standard chair is a great expression of the material’s design potential. It emphasizes the lightweight, sculptural yet structural quality that Celloderme lends itself to so well.
In a similar vein as the Standard chair is the Elephant children’s chair, which features the same aesthetic in a smaller scale. The chair features a whimsical silhouette, with its back wrapping around the base in reference to the ears of an elephant. With its rich colors and playful cylindrical form, the Elephant children’s chair is a great example of Avril’s work.
Additional pieces in the collection include the Drum stool, a pair of bedside tables, a bookcase, adult’s and children’s desks, a table, and a pair of table lamps. The Drum stool is cylindrical like the rest of the pieces, and features a rotund top surface and cutouts on the sides. It is comparable in scale to the Elephant chair and functions as either a seat or a side table. The bedside tables and bookcase use the same cylindrical form language in a different approach that includes inner shelves for storage. Variations of these forms can also be seen in the adult desk and table, the bases of which include a cylindrical structure with inner shelves. The nuanced variations in these furniture objects are a testament to the versatility of the material and the forms, and this language can be seen on a more diminutive scale in the Sun and Moon table lamps. These playful lamp designs include overlapping cutouts of various geometries and colors. The cast light emphasizes these shapes, exhibiting to great effect the lively nature of the designs.
Production of the cardboard pieces ceased in 1974 when Avril lost access to the Celloderme factory following his father-in-law’s death. Avril taught modern architectural history and theory at ENSA Paris-La Villette from 1970 to 2000, and in the 1980s he shifted his material focus to sheets of steel and aluminum. His aesthetic and process remained similar while he explored folding methods with sheet metal. This led to his Moon and Sun lamps, which have been reissued in metal by Lignes de Démarcation.
Jean-Louis Avril took something standard and reimagined it as a playful material for design, and this creativity encouraged many others to work in a similar vein. For a time, he experienced great visibility as a modern French designer, and his works have been disseminated across the globe in various galleries and collections. Lacquered Celloderme has proven to be a resilient and sustainable material with timeless style, a style Avril pioneered. He left a huge mark on the use of cardboard in furniture, inspiring modern designers and making it clear that his name deserves to be rescued from history.