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The way of the future with 'Cardboard Architect' Tobias Horrocks

The way of the future with 'Cardboard Architect' Tobias Horrocks

"Cardboard wants to unfold and refold constantly. It enjoys being light and strong."

It is this perspective of cardboard as a building material, that lies at the foundation of an exceptional practice–Fold Theory–set up by Australian architect Tobias Horrocks.
From single, modular furniture pieces, and complex parametrically designed installations, to the entire setup of prestigious trade shows and exhibitions–Tobias and Fold Theory have shown us a full range of structural, functional and aesthetic possibilities crafted from cardboard, none of which we could have imagined before.

Recently, and as part of our ongoing Research+Education Series, MaterialDriven spoke with Tobias about his work. In addition to his role as founder of Fold Theory, Tobias is a tutor in design, history and theory at the department of architecture at the University of Melbourne and a tutor in architecture at Monash University.


After nearly a decade practicing architecture–with an emphasis on digital design and fabrication–Tobias started Fold Theory, with a piece of conceptual furniture he had intended to make for his own use. 

Wanting to create something that would serve as a stool, table, and bookshelf, all-in-one, Tobias was seeking a light material then, one that could substitute MDF. During this process, he encountered Xanita X-board–a honeycomb fiberboard that is manufactured from post-consumer waste paper, and from fibers recovered from recycling cardboard boxes.

A prototype of this furniture–The Freefold Popup Box–was created then, from Xanita-X-Board, and did indeed end up in Tobias's home. More significantly, this first project set off Tobias’s investigation into the capabilities of ordinary cardboard; leading him to experiments and projects that capitalize on, and magnify the abilities of cardboard as a building material.

 The  Freefold Popup Box  by Tobias Horrocks, made from Xanita-X-Board can be assembled and disassembled easily, and serve multiple purposes.

The Freefold Popup Box by Tobias Horrocks, made from Xanita-X-Board can be assembled and disassembled easily, and serve multiple purposes.

These projects span across many scales. At one end of the spectrum, are works like the Freefold Stool–which takes a rapid two minutes to assemble, and groups with other similar stools to create larger benches, and even a bed. On the other end, are projects like the 5.5m high and 2.75m wide faceted panels for the Adobe Symposium, and the entire interiors of the Melbourne Art Book Fair, held at the National Gallery of Victoria last year (shelves, seating, even a massive ceiling-hung installation, as seen in the image below).

  Freefold Stool  by Tobias Horrocks, photography by Ellen Dewar

Freefold Stool by Tobias Horrocks, photography by Ellen Dewar

 Cardboard interiors by Tobias Horrocks comprised the entire set-up for Melbourne Art Book Fair, at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, in 2015. Photography by Sean Fennessy

Cardboard interiors by Tobias Horrocks comprised the entire set-up for Melbourne Art Book Fair, at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, in 2015. Photography by Sean Fennessy

 The faceted cardboard structure created for the Adobe Symposium set design by Tobias Horrocks, photography by Barton Taylor.

The faceted cardboard structure created for the Adobe Symposium set design by Tobias Horrocks, photography by Barton Taylor.

Core themes in Fold Theory's work

There appears to be a set of values that forms the basis of Tobias's cardboard design practice. The first is that he uses uncoated, ordinary cardboard, made of recycled material to create works that can themselves be recycled entirely. In this way, he designs and fabricates for sustainability, with the 'end of life' of his works in mind. 

A second, core theme, is the ease of assembly and disassembly; Tobias creates works that arrive flat packed at their destination and can be assembled and disassembled without any glue or power tools in most cases.

A third, significant attribute, is the structural prowess that Tobias's works possess. Often aided by parametric modeling and scripting, Tobias generates cardboard structures that are robust and can sustain heavy loads. For boutique design event  Indesign (Formerly ‘Saturday in design’), Tobias designed an installation that was assembled from a single profile and one type of joining piece. The installation could withstand heavy loads (of all the past issues of Indesign magazine) and was designed so that the cardboard pieces merely hold the structure together, rather than support any weight. Closer to home, Tobias himself occupies a robust bed that was assembled only from a grouping of his Freefold stools. 

Some of Fold Theory's projects, like the Freefold Stool (and bed), have proved to be structurally sound for many years– a situation that one does not expect from Cardboard. But is the intent to orient Cardboard to a longer lifespan? No, Tobias says "My philosophy is to design for a material's true lifespan. I don't want to promote cardboard as a very permanent material. Cardboard is a great fit for temporary structures and events, where it can be unfolded and folded again."

 InDesign magazine installation by Tobias Horrocks, Photography by Michelle Williams

InDesign magazine installation by Tobias Horrocks, Photography by Michelle Williams

 Closeup of the InDesign magazine installation by Tobias Horrocks, Photography by Michelle Williams

Closeup of the InDesign magazine installation by Tobias Horrocks, Photography by Michelle Williams

Process and fabrication

This unique philosophy is paired with an equally unique design and making process. Asked about the trajectory his projects follow, Tobias says "The process is a combination of sketching and computer modeling, and is iterative in many ways. A preliminary computer model tells me how large the structure will be when it is unfolded, and if it will fit on a single sheet of cardboard. A more detailed, true-to-life simulation is then generated and goes forward to the CNC machine and the team of fabricators I work with."

This hybrid, iterative process has yielded beautiful results. For an installation that represented Australian design publishing house Architecture Media, in an exhibition at the Gallery of Australian Design in Canberra, Tobias used a Grasshopper script to generate a set of four complex, gridded, attractive structures. Each structure was produced by stretching and manipulating the simple 'arch' form using parametric modeling and is an abstract icon representing each of four magazines by the publishing house.

 Architecture Media installation by Tobias Horrocks, Fold Theory. Photography by Ellen Dewar

Architecture Media installation by Tobias Horrocks, Fold Theory. Photography by Ellen Dewar

Cardboard and the future

The relationship between digital design and fabrication such as this and the growing use of cardboard as a building material is a strong one. Tobias notes it as well and says "The emphasis on digital fabrication and CNC processes in design and architectural education has brought students and younger designers much closer to using cardboard as a viable construction material." About the inherent strengths of cardboard, he goes on to say, "Today, architecture around us has to rely on heavy materials like concrete and steel, and in massive quantities, to achieve a certain playful effect. Cardboard can create that playfulness with so much less."

What are the limitations of cardboard as a material then? And what are the qualities, that someone like Tobias wishes that it did have? "Waterproof cardboard," He says, "I wish for waterproof cardboard that is also 100% recyclable. I don't want to use cardboard that has an applique on it (that makes it waterproof), but prevents it from being recycled. I am constantly on the lookout for such material."

We ask Tobias what is next for him, and Fold Theory. The Australian 'Cardboard Architect', tells us "I am very excited about an upcoming project–the single largest structure I have built with cardboard. This project will be a collaboration with an artist, here in Australia."

We can't wait to see how Tobias's work unfolds and follow the ways in which his practice continues to push the boundaries of cardboard design and architecture.

 Tobias with the  Freefold Stools, Photography by Peter Tarasuik

Tobias with the Freefold Stools, Photography by Peter Tarasuik


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