What is actually “cutting edge” in workplace design? The term is bandied about so freely, sometimes it is hard to know. There is the argument that progressive ideas are constantly bubbling to the surface – flexible working, the “reset concept”, knowledge sharing – but less often do we come across a truly imaginative office space.
French architect Paul Coudamy mourns this, which is why he decided to build an entire office out of industrial cardboard.
Well, perhaps that is just one of the reasons. A minuscule budget and only four weeks to conceptualise and construct a workspace for the client, Paris-based advertising agency Eleganz, may have also pushed him in that direction.
Armed with no money, no time and a desire to do something innovative, Coudamy went about making tables, benches, walls, meeting room pods, shelves and company logos out of cardboard – a material he had been wanting to work with for years. The only tools he wielded were a circular saw, wood glue, tape and varnish.
“We started to experiment and work with it,” he explains. “Construction took 10 days, but it could have been less because we were trying different things out for four of those days.”
Other than the desks and chairs (from Ikea) and a few other bits and bobs, the office is really just a bunch of cardboard. Movable partitions help mould the gaping warehouse space, which has an arched skylight with original factory windowpanes and exposed brick, into workable team areas for Eleganz’s 20 employees. A cardboard “laptop” bench offers an alternative to sitting at a desk and the micro-room meeting pod, which effectively deals with sound pollution, is far more comfortable than it looks.
“When I work on an office, the biggest problem is sound because people spend their time on their mobile phone and disturb other people. This micro-room tried to address that,” says Coudamy. He thought the pod would also encourage informal chats and brainstorms. “In the office, the best things happen in five-minute or 10- minute meetings – most of it is less than 10 minutes.”
Coudamy is keen to point out that the material is strong, as when stacked, it will not buckle under weight. “I can sit on it and there is never a problem.” In fact, it feels rather like wood. “A lot of Ikea furniture uses the exact same material,” he says, adding that it is also fire and stain resistant.
There is no denying, though, that cardboard has a shelf life, no matter how sturdy it is. “This wasn’t a really durable solution because they don’t know what the future holds,” he explains. “Maybe they are going to grow and need another office, so they will have to move. Or maybe with the financial crisis they will have to reduce their size. But they will be OK, because they haven’t spent a lot of money here.”
So could cardboard be a permanent fixture on the funkier end of office design? Coudamy says he is in contact with a few other companies about creating “pop-up” cardboard offices in the US, but that it’s really down to clients’ willingness to take risks.
“For this one, even though they had no money, they said: ‘OK, we’re gonna do it. If you think it’s a good idea, then lets do it,’” he says. “They were afraid, but they trusted me, and this is very important for a client and an architect. The biggest problem for me is to find willing clients, not to have ideas.”
It sounds as if both sides came out on top, and Coudamy agrees: “Everything is nice for everybody because I am happy to do it, and they are happy to reflect that they are young and creative and have a cutting-edge office.”
No doubt, the project has had its detractors. One of the criticisms levelled at using so much cardboard is that it is another spoke in the wheel of our throwaway culture. Coudamy explains his reasoning: “I am not working with the aim of doing green design for a green market. It was more about experimentation and a new thing. I am very interested in the office space as an experiment. A lot of my work is sustainable, though that is not the aim. In this case, if the firm collapsed, they would have to throw everything out. It is recyclable. It has come from five hours of transport, it is local, very little glue and not much energy was used to construct it. It’s very sustainable, actually.”
Some people think it is genius and others just plain silly – but hats must be taken off to Coudamy for redefining “cutting edge”. The cardboard office is a practical, short-term solution (life expectancy is two or three years, but that remains to be seen). It’s dirt cheap. It’s 100% recyclable. It serves the people who occupy the space. We’ve never seen anything like it before. Surely the sum of those parts is what “cutting edge” is all about.