Written by Frances Vigna
When it comes to child design, parents know that the old adage is true: Sometimes, simpler is better. This explains why, when children happen upon a discarded box, they can entertain themselves for hours. A little boy or girl can often have more fun playing with the package a toy is wrapped in—fashioning it into a playhouse or a rocket or a race car—than with the toy itself. And when a child’s imagination is given free rein, especially with a material as raw and undeveloped as cardboard, the results are inspiring. Although it is one of the most easily renewable resources, paper is often overlooked in the world of child design. But over the last half century, designers have tapped into the potential of cardboard and paperboard as a sustainable option for furniture and toy construction.
On its own, heavy-duty cardboard is intended to be slightly flexible, so that, among other uses, it may be folded into boxes for packaging and then broken down later for disposal. When corrugated cardboard was patented in the late nineteenth century, the material’s light weight made it the perfect choice for shipping containers in the quickly industrializing West. The precut paperboard box, invented by Robert Gair in 1890, could be mass-produced and shipped flat, and it revolutionized long-distance freight manufacturing. With its large surface area, thanks to the tightly folded paper sandwiched between two pieces of fiberboard, corrugated cardboard is durable and tear-resistant.
The publishing industry was an early adopter of cardboard, in its construction of books for young readers. As infant mortality began dropping in the eighteenth century, families became more able to focus on education in child-rearing, and early literacy programs became popular. Many children’s books were crafted with cloth covers, but rationing during the World Wars led publishers to manufacture books of heavy paper or fiberboard. According to Allison Kaplan, who researches early childhood education and emerging literacy in children, board books are valuable for very young children, as they are difficult to tear. Little hands can easily grasp them without destroying the pages, and therefore children grow accustomed to handling books, which encourages them to read. The tactile qualities of board books encouraged publishers to create inventive designs, including pages with flaps that children could open to read text underneath, engaging their curiosity.
With its relatively great strength for its weight, cardboard would seem ideal for furniture production, but the material is difficult to make rigid without a designer’s careful intervention. One solution was to design pieces that could be flat-packed and assembled at home, using folds, slots, and tabs. Since cardboard has great burst strength and resistance to crushing, if manufactured in the right design the material has high load-bearing capabilities. While a student at London’s Royal College of Art in 1963, Peter Murdoch exploited cardboard’s strength by designing a disposable flat-packed chair that could be assembled by simply folding it into shape. The Spotty chair for New Merton Board Mills was lightweight and easy to maneuver, and came in bright colors reflecting the pop art trends of the era. Additionally, the paper was covered in a thin layer of polyethylene, making it water-resistant and easy to clean (but not recyclable, as the process of stripping coated cardboard in order to break the paper down into pulp for reuse was too costly).
A decade later, Craig Hodgetts, Robert Mangurian, and Keith Godard put together for Design Research a series of low-cost furniture that arrived in single sheets of the heavy-duty corrugated board that was then popular for shipping containers. The flat sections were easily punched out along prescored lines in the board and assembled to create three-dimensional pieces, including a water-resistant table and chairs for children. PunchOut was designed for children aged three to six, and its 1973 advertising campaign pictured youngsters adjoining the furniture pieces themselves, highlighting the ease of assembly.
Perhaps the most recognizable furniture design in cardboard is Frank Gehry’s Wiggle side chair, created for Vitra in 1972. It was not manufactured for children, but the chair’s design was an innovative use of corrugated cardboard to create a stable seating surface. For the series that included the Wiggle chair, Gehry devised Easy Edges, a cantilevered design of bent cardboard glued in alternating layers. Due to the increased internal surface area of the corrugated layers, the chair was incredibly sturdy and also acted as an excellent noise-dampening device. The Wiggle chair became so popular in the seventies that Gehry was better known as a furniture designer than as an architect early in his career.
Taking a cue from modern design icons as well as traditional joinery techniques in brass, avant-garde Brooklyn design duo Chen Chen and Kai Williams created a series of children’s furniture in layered Homasote panel, a postconsumer recycled fiberboard. Inspired by Gerrit Rietveld’s thirties-era wooden Zig-Zag chair, Gehry’s Wiggle chair, and a twenty-five-year-old collection by Williams’s parents, the S chair is a contemporary interpretation of modernist design. Homasote—recycled paper that is shredded and compressed with binders—is a homogenous material with no grain. All pieces cut out of the same sheet, regardless of the direction from which they are cut, will be structurally identical and uniformly rigid (unlike Gehry’s Easy Edges material, which relies on alternating grains to maintain stability). As Chen points out, once the hardware is removed, the chair is entirely recyclable, making it a sustainable paperboard design.
The newest trend in cardboard-construction design isn’t new at all: The baby box, developed by the Finnish government in the 1930s to encourage healthy child-rearing habits in mothers, has recently caught on Stateside. Every newborn in Finland receives a subsidized package that includes, among other things, a quilt, snowsuit, hat, nail clipper, thermometer, toothbrush and toothpaste, teething toy, socks, onesies in unisex colors, towels, diapers, picture books, and condoms. The kit also includes a mattress and pad, and the box itself, fashioned from cardboard or fiberboard, can be used as a makeshift bed. Many Finnish babies nap in these paper boxes, which can be recycled once the child has grown too big to fit inside. Last month, New Jersey became the first state to offer new parents a baby-box package, in an effort to reduce infant mortality.
As manufacturers move forward with recyclable and recycled materials in order to produce sustainable designs, they must always consider the cost to the consumer. Early paper furniture and toys were inexpensive and disposable, which meant that parents could purchase them knowing that they were easily replaceable. Contemporary designers are using the latest postconsumer materials to create pieces with a smaller ecological footprint but that also last for ages, so that parents may invest in furniture and toys that are better for the environment as well as indestructible in tiny hands.