Want a house in a hurry? You can get one made of corrugated cardboard layered and glued onto a wooden frame, waterproofed, stained to look like wood, and finished on the inside with plywood. It's anything but a box, is light enough not to need a traditional foundation, and can be extended in sections to as long as you'd like.

Cardboard needs better PR. It's everywhere in the modern world. And yet, like an inanimate Rodney Dangerfield, it gets no respect. Cardboard is what you make boxes of or put underfoot to catch mud dripping from your boots or tape against a window for a temporary fix when a pane of glass broke.

But designers can see a lot more in cardboard, like the basis of making a bicycle. Part of the design process is to study the relative strengths and weaknesses of things in the surrounding world and sometimes to use materials in ways people don't expect.

Architects have often done this, from the use of concrete as a featured exterior finish in brutalism to Frank Gehry's early use of unfinished plywood and exposed ceiling beams. All four versions of Edvard Munch's "Scream" were on cardboard, as early in his career he used the material instead of more expensive canvas and became accustomed to the texture. Furniture makers adopted plywood in the early 20th century because it could provide wide surfaces without gluing up boards and offer greater dimensional stability. Stainless steel has become a popular finish for appliances and other kitchen applications.

Factors including weight, strength, durability, price, and novelty of appearance can all play in choice of unusual materials. Cardboard can offer surprising capabilities, as the following examples show:

There is even an entire restaurant made of cardboard in Taiwan.

Not that you will want to make something out of cardboard. But the first step toward innovative and compelling design is to break your associations with how things are supposed to be. As an experiment, think of how you would use cardboard in design of a product, tool, facility, or other object. The more open you are to new solutions, the greater a chance that you'll spark creativity and arrive someplace you never imaged you could be.

Published on: May 16, 2016
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