Project Zen: The Animals & The Sittables

In our corrugated cardboard Zen garden, nothing conjures tranquility quite like a family of gently-browsing quadrupeds – plus some well-placed sittables from which to observe them.

When Project Zen’s Ryan Hooper was in Design School, he and a team of classmates were given a devilish challenge: build a body-weight supporting go-kart that could be raced, at fastest possible clip, down the steepest hill on campus. There was a catch of course. The kart had to be constructed entirely from corrugated cardboard sheets, a handful of glue-sticks and just two, one-inch diameter dowel rods. 

By further deft tweaking of lighting design, the animal-like impression provided by a slotted-together collection of flat cardboard sheets can be uncannily realistic

“Our goal was to maximize strength,” recalls Ryan, having survived to tell the tale. “We used an overlapping method to bind the pieces of cardboard together and, amazingly, it worked. These experiences stick, literally. It was the first technique my mind went to when considering how to craft the quadrupeds.” 

Ryan’s design professors didn’t stop there, mind you, they required him and his colleagues to build numerous other items this way. “We got good at working with sheets and layers” he continues. “That’s your jam if you want to achieve stability with cardboard. For the Project Zen animals, I modeled both side and front profiles of their shape, then digitally sliced these into sections that determine the cardboard cuts for the CNC router. These pieces can then be slotted together to make the final three-dimensional form.”

With the basic form established, it can be rapidly adjusted to create model deer, sheep, bovines or other similar-sized ruminants. By further deft tweaking of lighting design, the animal-like impression provided by a slotted-together collection of flat carboard sheets can be uncannily realistic

While the animals only had to support their own weight, the structural strength of the garden’s cardboard sittables was more critical, although a collapse from a low height would probably be more embarrassing than damaging to visitors who decided to relax on them.

Ever on the look-out for new ways to use materials, Ryan’s inspiration for the design of the distinctive tubular seats came from his local UPS store. “I was fascinated by the variety of packing tubes on offer. This got me thinking about making something novel out of them. Getting home, I googled ‘Cardboard Tubes’ and discovered that some companies make very thick, ultra-strong tubing – ideal for furniture.”

The technique of cutting tubes to be mitered or joined is called coping and can be achieved in several ways. At CDI World, we have the capacity to build sophisticated tubular structures through our access to robotic cutting systems and specialty vendors – although the tubes are more likely to be steel or aluminum rather than cardboard.

For the next part of the challenge things get a little gluey. “Trying out various heavy-duty adhesives will be essential to ensuring the strength of the tube connections,” attests Ryan. “Sometimes there’s no substitute for hands-on research.” But, however good the glue, Ryan expects the CDI World production team to build in some back-up. “They’d reinforce the inner layers with strategic nuts and bolts.”

As for the ‘scooped-out’ furniture made of vertical tubes, this would involve, inescapably, a fair amount of good old-fashioned human labor, with plenty of hand sanding to achieve the subtlety of the finished shape.

The next, concluding article about Project Zen, will be especially illuminating. We’ll be taking a peek under the hood at the garden’s lighting design and its ability to progressively transform the space with daytime and nighttime looks. Get ready to choose your mood.