Dec. 27, 2012 -- We're used to seeing kids transform cardboard boxes into houses, forts and castles. This year, nine-year-old Caine stole our hearts by creating an entire arcade out of cardboard in his father’s Los Angeles shop.
"He must have had really good fun making it," said Chris Gilmour, an award-winning British artist who recreates detailed life-sized replicas of familiar objects such as a dentist chair, a grandfather clock, and an Aston Martin entirely from recycled cardboard and glue. "And I think that's how cardboard designers should start off."
Imaginative minds are constructing houses, bridges and even bikes from a material that often gets tossed in the recycling bin. Here, Gilmour shares his top picks for cardboard creations that are both unique and functional.
GOTTA-SEE VIDEOS: Caine's Arcade
As one-offs, cardboard chairs can actually cost more than wooden ones. Gilmour explains that it’s a matter of crunching numbers. Furniture manufacturers like Ikea push prices down with established commercial techniques, but that’s starting to change with better technology for small production runs.
The Argentinian team behind Pomada design studio in Buenos Aires, Antonela Dada and Bruno Sala, met in college and was inspired to create furniture with a low environmental impact. They were inspired to build using recycled cardboard tubes they got from a local factory. The resulting furniture, like this lounger, gets coated with clear lacquer for protection.
"Those tubes are as strong as bamboo, they're amazing," Gilmour said.
The idea for SmartDeco came from a college kid and recent grad who wanted to make temporary, affordable furniture that could be recycled when it was time to move. With help from a Kickstarter campaign, the Los Angeles-based company has now started selling dressers, desks, and nightstands manufactured in the U.S. from strong, lightweight, FSC-certified cardboard.
"It's designed to be short-term," Gilmour said. "You've got an apartment, you're only going to be there six months, you don't want to spend a fortune on furniture." A three-piece bedroom set costs $119 and comes ready to be painted. Although the company says its products are durable, they’re intended to be used for three years max. Then they can go straight into the recycling bin.
Israeli inventor Izhar Gafni made headlines this year when he unveiled a lightweight bike made from cardboard. Even though engineers were telling him such an idea would be impossible, Gafni played around with cardboard material. His persistence yielded several prototypes, including one that closely resembles a traditional bike in look and function.
Gafni says he built it with $9 worth of cardboard and hopes to start selling them for $60 in 2013. He's also working with Israeli entrepreneur Nimrod Elmish to bring affordable cardboard wheelchairs to developing areas. And if this bike becomes a reality, it would pair nicely with the cardboard helmet called Kranium designed by an art student at the Royal College of Art in the U.K.
Gilmour called the bike invention incredible, but cautioned that bringing cardboard mobility to poor areas will be challenging because it requires efficient manufacturing technology. "If [the bike] does go into production and it's the kind of cost they’re talking about, then it’s amazing," he added.
Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, known for using environmentally friendly materials in his projects, demonstrated just how strong cardboard could be when he unveiled a bridge made from it in 2007. Summertime visitors to the Gardon River in southern France took to Ban’s scaffold-like bridge, made from more than 280 cardboard tubes and strong enough to hold 20 people at once.
"It's kind of a modern interpretation of bamboo," Gilmour said. The bridge was dismantled after several weeks, ahead of the rainy season.
When the Dutch ad agency Nothing wanted a budget-friendly office space, they got a novel cardboard one created by designers Alrik Koudenburg and Joost van Bleiswijk. Koudenburg called the approach "a creative agency with an interior like a sketchbook."
From interior stairs and tables to cubicle walls, desks and plant stands, nearly everything in Nothing was constructed from cardboard that creative staffers could draw on and paint. (The agency name comes from a Steve Jobs quote: "Nothing means more to me than my children.") Gilmour calls this approach advantageous not only for offices but for temporary spaces for fairs and shopping centers.
"Two people can put it up and take it down," he said. "If you want to change the office structure around you can just lift it up and turn it."
Kids can take a cardboard box and turn it into a castle -- something Gilmour said he did himself when he was a child -- so it’s tough to compete with a classic. Although there are numerous cardboard models out there now for young minds, one robotic set stands out.
Kinetic Creatures are easy-to-construct cardboard animals that can walk using a mechanical motion. An elephant, rhinoceros, and giraffe are all slightly bigger than a breadbox and can move on their own when their wire handles are turned. The Portland, Oregon, duo Lucas Ainsworth and Alyssa Hamel originally put their Kinetic Creatures on Kickstarter last May. By June they’d reached their fundraising goal.
"To have something that's actually mechanical is quite novel," Gilmour said.
"Is it possible to DIY for someone else?" NYU grad student Carolina Pino wondered. Her answer: $35 collapsible cardboard shelters called ShellHouse. Each tent-like shelter contains an embedded radio device that can relay a call for food or a health emergency, along with key identifying info.
Pino posted the instructions online to build her ShellHouse and reported that the structures had been tested at the St. Francis of Assisi Church in Manhattan.
Gilmour called ShellHouse a good use of cardboard that would be easy and affordable to make in response to emergency situations, where people need shelter quickly. With a government or large organization supporting this kind of shelter, they’d be even cheaper to produce.
"It would probably cheaper and a bit more solid than a tent," he added. "You could plastify it quite easily."
In the search to replace ubiquitous bubble wrap, Gilmour highlights a puzzle-like packaging design by Patrick Sung described on YankoDesign.com as a "Universal Packaging System" or UPACKS for short. Sung took flat corrugated cardboard sheets and creased them with repeating patterns so they can be molded into all kinds of origami-like shapes.
"It's a dead simple design -- just cardboard with these triangles folded on it," Gilmour said. "You can cut it with a pair of scissors or rip it and stick it together. You can wrap weird-shaped things."
Sung was ahead of the curve. Office supply stores now sell a woven paper alternative to plastic bubble wrap called Greenwrap. But it doesn’t appear to be quite as thick as UPACKS.
Well-meaning designers have struggled with cardboard beds. Gilmour pointed out that the price for limited cardboard furniture production is still so high that you might as well just pay for homeless people to stay in a hotel. The enormous, sturdy Paperpedic Bed sold in Austria costs $188.
On the other end of the spectrum, a French humanitarian startup called Leaf Supply makes durable cardboard camp beds that have been field tested in Africa. Each patented LeafBed is made from cardboard folded into "modules" that can also be used to form tables and stools. Last year the United Nations Refugee Agency used 900 LeafBeds for a refugee camp in Kenya.
Gilmour calls the LeafBed a useful idea. "In an emergency situation -- an earthquake or something where you need to host a lot of people in a sports hall -- it would be great," he said.
As any kid can tell you, cardboard is a reliable means for entertainment. Gilmour highlighted two groups led by adults that have taken this to the extreme. One is Boxwars, a regular spectacle that’s taken place in Australia for the past 10 years. Urging participants to “fight or be recycled,” these zany events entail engineering elaborate armor from cardboard and then doing battle in it.
Another is the collaborative Russian art project known as Cardboardia, where participants create their own unique characters and then come together to build entire temporary towns from cardboard. The creature in this image was one of many constructed in August 2012 for the Day of Giant Tyran's Creature, a national Cardboardia celebration.
Gilmour himself realized the benefits of working with cardboard early on while making prototypes for wood sculptures. “It’s very flexible, it’s very strong, it’s very quick,” he said. “If you make a mistake, it’s not the end of the world."
GOTTA-SEE VIDEOS: Caine's Arcade