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Interview: Tobias Horrocks | Cardboard Architect

Tobias Horrocks Fold Theory Cardboard architecture

When architect Tobias Horrocks first designed a piece of cardboard furniture for his own use, the Freefold Popup Box, little did he know that his career was going to take another turn entirely and he would become immersed in a world of cardboard. And, oh, the places it has taken him. Literally around the world.

Not only does he take on cardboard design commissions and architecture work but he also works part-time as a tutor in architecture design, history and theory at the University of Melbourne, and he regularly writes reviews of architecture and design for magazines and online publications. In 2014 he was awarded a VESKI Victoria Fellowship to travel overseas to investigate cardboard design practices and advanced computer modelling techniques that will help enhance local sustainable design. Which is where we meet Tobias – having just come back from his overseas travel …

Tobias Horrocks , cardboard architect of Fold Theory

Tobias Horrocks , cardboard architect of Fold Theory

Please introduce yourself. Tell us how you have ended up where you are today and when and why you began exploring with cardboard and realised its potential in design?

I grew up in a country town in Victoria called Ballarat. I moved to Melbourne to study architecture, where my final design thesis was an investigation of what the computer could do for architecture that no other medium could (this was the late 90s). I then worked for many years in a firm in Melbourne called John Wardle Architects, where I eventually headed up ‘research and development’.

Freefold Popup Box by Tobias Horrocks

Freefold Popup Box by Tobias Horrocks which won the sustainable product category of the 2009 IDEA Awards

How did I end up where I am today? Not by planning. I initially had a private house commission that inspired me to go part time. That ended after the client couple broke up. I stayed part time, working on some furniture designs to furnish my rented city apartment. I came up with a beautiful geometric module that was supposed to be a stool, table and bookshelf. I knew that computer-numeric control (CNC) fabrication was possible with plywood, and planned to make it that way. Then I saw an ad for Xanita, a 100% recycled honeycomb cardboard. It was very exciting to think that my module could be super lightweight and unfolded for transport, and then recycled or composted.

I was dismayed by how much waste was being produced by refurbishments of interiors. The ideal solution is to design long-lasting furniture and interiors and never throw anything out, but that goes against our innate desire for ‘the new’, the latest, the best. If you go with the flow, and accept that most designs are temporary, it makes sense to make them out of something easy to recycle. So I investigated the potential of computer-designed cardboard. That was in 2008 and I’m still learning and investigating! I think I just answered your second question too.

Fold Theory, Tobias Horrocks

The National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne commission for the Melbourne Art Book Fair

What challenges did you face along the way during the design and production process in order to achieve a sturdy, durable, sustainable product?

Of course, there were many. It was a steep learning curve but lots of generous and skilled people helped me along the way. I made many mistakes. I first tried to get the cardboard cut on a machine designed for wood. It worked, sort of, but it was very messy. Laser cutting was also possible but tends to burn the edges and cannot make the ‘V’ notches necessary to fold the honeycomb board. The manufacturers of Xanita helped me find fabricators with specialist cardboard CNC machines. These are like giant flat-bed printers, except the print head is a cutting blade.

I had one big incentive to research and develop the process – I had received a commission (via a friend whose company is called Collaborate) to design Sustainability Victoria’s stand at a trade show. I had a deadline to meet! The project was a success, and I had a product to sell. I launched it at Design: Made: Trade. I sold some but not many. It was just too expensive. People think of cardboard as a cheap packaging material and I was trying to sell it as a high-end design piece. I needed to make it more affordable but didn’t want to fabricate in China, for example. I wanted to manufacture it locally. I like the fact that cardboard is made locally from local waste paper. Then I met Gordon Bate, who was the head of a two-man “innovation department” at Visy. At that time, if you had a new idea for cardboard, Visy would give you free advice and prototyping. I learnt about ordinary cardboard, which is much cheaper, and the manufacturing process – die cutting – whilst less high tech, is also cheaper (as long as you are prepared to make large quantities). I think I may have digressed …

Fold Theory, Tobias HorrocksHas there been anything you haven’t been able to do/make with cardboard?

Plenty. I am always ambitious. After discovering how strong this ‘weak’ material can be if folded in the right way, I tried to see how thin I could go with the board. Thin board means tight, sharp creases – and I like that look. My first prototype of the stool used very thin board with lots of folds. It was complex, yet worked. But I had also learned (the hard way) that simplicity of assembly is very important. (A project that nearly killed me to install was the Log Book Shelf, which involved 250 individually numbered pieces in the shape of a tree trunk merging with city buildings/book shelves. It was a feat of computer-aided design, but was near-impossible to assemble.) So, the stool became slightly thicker in board, but much simpler to put together.

One structural feat I am particularly proud of was a wall made from magazines – back issues of Indesign magazine – that I joined with flimsy bits of cardboard, and strong knuckles made from an old cardboard tube. The magazines themselves were made to be load-bearing, and the whole lot weighed over 200 kg. The prototyping and testing process was critical.

Fold Theory Tobias Horrocks

What would be your ideal commission or project involving cardboard or have you already made it?

The Melbourne Art Book Fair was a dream commission. I love art, and I love the National Gallery of Victoria. As well as planning the whole space, and providing the functional furniture for the Fair, I got to do some purely decorative, spatial play, in the form of a hanging ceiling suspended five metres in the air. The Great Hall is a special space – in fact the whole building is legendary, designed by Roy Grounds in the 50s, and the Hall has a stained glass ceiling by artist Leonard French. The NGV wanted to make the space feel more intimate, but I didn’t want to obscure the ceiling, so my idea was to drape a lacy mesh across the centre of the volume that you could see through. And the pièce-de-résistance was an upside-down dome made from cardboard, suspended from the netting above a central gathering space.

What are you working on at the moment?

I have just returned from an amazing two and a half months in Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland and Turkey, as a result of a Victorian State government-funded research and innovation fellowship. I met a lot of cardboard furniture designers, and some designers who manipulate folded material with advanced computer modelling techniques. One of the main reasons for going was to see their work in context, to understand the local society, the economic conditions that support their practice. In other words, I had a great time exploring parts of the world I had never been before! I also made new friends who share my passion for cardboard design, learnt new design techniques and studied alternative models for relationships with manufacturers. The task I have now is implementing what I’ve learned now that I’m back home.

Freefold Stool by Tobias Horrocks

Freefold Stool

Explain the importance for you of a sustainable life and work practice?

I am driven by a desire to minimise harm to the environment and this extends to not wanting to drive (‘driven’, get it?)  I have never owned a car, and go everywhere I can by bicycle and/or public transport. When I do need a vehicle, I hire one. I’m a member of GoGet, the car-share service, and I love it. As an architect working on buildings, I felt the conflict between a desire to create sculptural, gravity-defying forms, and the need to reduce energy consumption and waste. In a sideways move, I switched from concrete and steel to a lightweight recyclable medium, so that I get to play with dynamic forms without the guilt.

Log Book Shelf by Tobias Horrocks

Log Book Shelf: the form is a fallen tree trunk fused with a city-scape.

Who or what are some of your influences? What other artists, designers and creatives do you admire?

I admire the work of many architects, designers and artists. One inspiration that comes to mind is the work of a Melbourne jeweller, the late Mari Funaki. She made black steel table-top ‘vessels’ that looked a little bit like deconstructivist architecture (think Lebbeus Woods, Coop Himmelblau, Michael Sorkin or Daniel Libeskind) crossed with insects and/or stealth bombers. I loved them so much I bought one. It’s technically a bracelet but I’ve never worn it. Instead I keep it on my mantelpiece. I was so startled when I discovered her work, I thought, “I didn’t know you were allowed to just design what you love!” It made me realise that subconsciously I had been limiting myself, conforming to some notion I had of what was “expected” of me. Her work was a sign: pursue your passion!

My guilty pleasure is … is dessert. I nearly made myself ill in Istanbul trying all the sweets.

Have you ever had a ‘who’d have thought’ moment?

Alone in exotic Istanbul, so far from Australia in so many ways – who’d have thought cardboard design could take me around the world?

Tobias Horrocks (@cardboardarchitect) via 1973 photo

I just had to add this image posted by Tobias on Instagram @cardboardarchitect and found in the “1973 Britannica Yearbook of Science and the Future”. How amazing is that?

Thanks so much, Tobias, for giving up some of the views from your Italian train ride to start answering my questions! 

You can find Tobias and his work at Fold Theory and on Instagram and Facebook.

Visit the Who'd Have Thought store

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