That Cardboard Bed Was Supposed to Be a Utopia

Oct 4, 2021 6:11 PM

Yes, you can have athletic sex in a cardboard bed. The rumor that the cursed COVID Olympics in Tokyo was promoting celibacy through flimsy furniture has since been debunked, but that doesn’t mean that those beds aren’t worthy of further scrutiny. It’s not their material that’s weak but the design ambition behind them. Stylish temporary architecture has been a hallmark of Olympic Games past — just look at Los Angeles in 1984, where construction scaffolding became enchanting Pop villages — but these boxy furniture pieces read as designed for forgettability, not engineered to give bodies under stress the best rest.

Why build another box when, since the 1960s, cardboard dreamers have demonstrated that the material can bend, curve and roll, much like the Irish gymnast Rhys McClenaghan, who went viral on Twitter jumping on one of said beds to disprove its anti-sex reputation? Why build something in white or brown when they could be red, yellow, or blue or have polka dots or Olympic rings?


Once upon a time, cardboard was going to save us all from conformity. “Those beds are pretty basic,” says Andrew Blauvelt, director of the Cranbrook Art Museum, and the curator of the 2015-2016 Walker Art Center exhibition Hippie Modernism, which showcased some of the weirdest and wildest experiments in temporary living environments of the 1960s. “The Olympic Village is doing it for ecological reasons, and that’s the funny thing. The 1960s stuff was supposed to reflect a new modern lifestyle — it was supposed to be longer-lasting rather than just tossed away after use.” Cardboard attracted attention back then because of its ubiquity as first a byproduct of, and then a design problem produced by, the postwar culture of consumption. Cardboard was lightweight, it was portable, and it lent itself to D.I.Y. and customization. Giving boxes a second life in the home was a positive tweak to throwaway culture.

It was also seen as the material of play, an invitation to creativity. No less an eminence than Dr. Spock recommended the cardboard box as an alternative to expensive readymade toys. A group known as Adaptive Design Association develops custom cardboard furniture for people with disabilities and then modifies it, sometimes over years; as Sara Hendren wrote about the organization’s designs in her book What Can a Body Do?, they are strong enough to be “temporary, but also temporary-to-permanent, lasting years if needed … Cardboard has the virtue of being provisional, and it retains its experimental spirit even while it offers its sturdy strength.”

Ken Isaacs, a Cranbrook graduate and author of the 1974 book How to Build Your Own Living Structures, epitomized this ethos, according to Blauvelt. “His whole idea was you just give away the blueprints and the drawings” — in Isaacs’s case for a wood-framed living unit called the Super Chair — “and then you can make it as elaborate as you want.”

Frank Gehry was among the designers who took on cardboard’s experimental spirit. He started playing with the material when he was asked to design a quick, inexpensive environment for a symposium to be held at the artist Robert Irwin’s studio in 1969. He kept playing afterward, eventually deciding he preferred a side view that showed the corduroy-like corrugations. By laminating multiple sheets, he could create an open-weave plank, lighter than wood but nearly as strong, and he used these to make a file cabinet and a desk for his office.

As the critic Paul Goldberger wrote in his biography of Gehry, “The desk became the reception desk in his office, where it would be an immediate signal to visitors that this was not the kind of architectural office outfitted with the sleek Knoll and Herman Miller furniture that you saw everywhere else,” much as the chain-link fencing on Gehry’s Santa Monica house indicated it was not like other bungalows.

His Wiggle chair, which looks like a doodle carved from a block of corrugations, ended up as part of a furniture collection touted in the Los Angeles Times in 1972 under the headline “Why Didn’t Somebody Think of This Before?” for its cheap price (a table cost $100) and sturdiness (said table could support 100 pounds). The line came to be known as Easy Edges. Several of the pieces are still in production and available, expensively.


Most cardboard carpenters of the era preferred a DIY approach, offering instruction manuals and suggesting that lightweight furniture was part of a small-footprint lifestyle. Nomadic Furniture, by James Hennessey and Victor Papanek, was produced on unbleached pages with handwritten text and diagrams, a brown-and-orange cover that screams 1973, and this subtitle: “How to build and where to buy lightweight furniture that folds, inflates, knocks down, stacks, or is disposable and can be recycled.” The authors also suggested that cardboard’s flexibility would help make accessibly priced furniture to fit a wider range of ages, sizes, and abilities than the average — which, again, makes sense for an event which hosts gymnasts and basketball players, Paralympians and Olympians.

Like its contemporary The Whole Earth Catalog, Nomadic Furniture positioned this kind of vernacular design as a universal resource rather than an expensive consumer product. Its most shocking entry is for a disposable child’s car seat (really a booster), created by Eddie Coleman and simplified by Hennessey into ten pieces that could be disassembled into a flat stack but also create a seat that curves around the body. Online forums that have found this design are merciless in their mockery, but given what we know of the strength of multi-ply cardboard, especially when the layers are interlocked, it’s an idea that’s at least worth testing out.

The Abus helmet prototype from 2012 leveraged the same honeycomb principle: thin cardboard on its own may be weak, but when it is crisscrossed it is rigid while remaining lightweight. The Chick ’n’ Egg Chair by Manuel Kretzer uses its honeycombs to curve to the behind rather than the cranium, but could also be scaled up or down or, one imagines, horizontally, to provide a contoured surface large enough to lie down on.

Nomadic Furniture also features Toobs, designed by Jim and Penny Hull under the brand name H.U.D.D.L.E., which reused the cardboard tubes often used as molds for concrete columns as the basic structure of pod-like beds and bunks. “The Hulls actually see their design as a play environment, too,” the New York Times wrote in 1972, when the set was introduced at the Design Research store on East 57th Street in Manhattan. “While some [children] crawled in and out of the double-decker tubes, calling them caves and houses, others scaled the unit to the top, straddling the upper cylinders as if they were king of the mountain.” These, too, seem a more sleep environment with extra potential for Olympians.

More prosaically, and equally cheaply, cardboard has been used for dorm furniture, which is all the Athletes’ Village really is. In 2011, with a freshly printed architecture degree from the University of Waterloo, Geoff Christou and friend Chris Porteous launched Our Paper Life, a flat-pack, reusable desk and shelf designed for students and sold for $19.99. “Instead of the paperless future, there’s the paper desk,” wrote the Toronto Star. In 2015 the founders returned with Room in a Box, a full suite of furniture in primary-plus colors, with a $249 introductory price, that they tried (unsuccessfully) to fund via Indiegogo with the promise of a “30 minute move.” While these products were less curvaceous than Gehry or the Toobs, the colors and combination of storage and sleep surface seem like they would also be an improvement for athletes, who surely have a lot of sneakers to stow in the under-bed niches.


So why aren’t we living in the corrugated future? Blauvelt thinks that the cardboard revolution was ultimately doomed by IKEA, which created cheap furniture that seemed as if it would last longer, despite being heavier and harder to put together. Plastics, which also came into their own during the 1960s, also make for cheap, portable furniture and storage, despite being less customizable and less recyclable. Most of us do not, in truth, want to do it ourselves, and it is even easier now than it was then to receive already-assembled furniture (in cardboard boxes). Cardboard returns now and then to fill a vacancy in the consumer market, as with the Adaptive Design Associates’s pieces, or in times of need, as with architect Shigeru Ban’s Paper Log Houses, built after the Kobe earthquake in 1995 and subsequently adapted for disaster relief elsewhere. Gehry’s Easy Edges are now museum pieces, and friends of mine report moving Our Paper Life pieces from place to place before they meet their inevitable blue-bin demise.

Cardboard was once the material of utopian dreams. But, as with the Games themselves, mired in cost overruns, political controversy, and pandemic contagion, the world-changing fervor is gone. Yes, it is laudable that the beds “will be recycled into paper products after the Games, with the mattress components recycled into new plastic products,” as Athletes’ Village organizers have stated. It would be better still if they were made well enough to continue on their journey as beds, no additional energy required, in shelters, or student housing, or stockpiled for the next natural disaster. That way cardboard would continue its decades-long fight against disposability.