The Grammar of Corrugated Cardboard

Corrugated Cardboard

Following the suggestion of what I call the Grammar of Matter, we should try to observe things as if we were seeing them for the first time; with respect and curiosity, without already having a goal or a precise outcome in mind.

What about the language of corrugated cardboard? What are its transformative potentials? Or in other words, what transformations do its characteristics suggest to us? Let’s start with a small scrap piece, derived from a box of cookies.

I pick it up: the strips in relief are immediately an irresistible invitation to cut, while the two folding lines show where to stop cutting.

Now it can move in many ways, it seems to come alive, it becomes a tunnel, a millipede, a carnivorous plant…

Another action, generally associated with corrugated cardboard, is “rolling up”. If we combine it with cutting (or we put it in relation to other objects), various shapes can be created, in turn composable and combinable with each other.

On the left: picture by RobertapucciLab – On the right: picture from the book Créations en papier, mgf atelier

There are different kind of corrugated cardboard: as we have seens, it is used for small food packagings, while other colored ones are available in art supply shops, or you even can buy large rolls, generally used as industrial packaging.

What happens if we try to remake the same shape in a much larger size? A detail, a small decoration becomes a high impact presence.

Setting and workshop by RobertapucciLab for the public library “Il Castello dei Ragazzi” (Carpi, Italy)

The rolled strip that looked like a small sprout, can become a tree if using the maximum size of the roll. And then, more trees can generate a forest within a room… The setting of these images was designed as part of a creative workshop for a public library (in Carpi, Italy). Some tables were set with some materials and tools, ready to welcome adults and children to create colorful flowers for the trees.

“The grammar of matter” invites us to put the qualities and properties of a material in relation with the context around. Here is an example of how this can happen. One morning, the Swedish educator and atelierista Maria Kozlowska saw a large roll of cardboard standing in the storeroom and had the idea of making a corrugated cardboard labytinth for 2/3-years-olds children.

Pictures by Maria Kozlowska

It is a single length of corrugated cardboard that the children shape and reshape, explains Maria. The children form new “rooms” by pinching the paper together and closing into these spaces, alone or together. They open and close the rooms and the walls are changed by their actions, while organically shaped passages are formed.

By very actively investigating the material, children become aware of how their actions create new patterns and formations in the space. They also move their fingers on the corrugated cardboard wall and create sounds. In fact, noise is a characteristic aspect of corrugated cardboard.

“They are creaking footsteps” says Denise, the four-year-old author of this work entitled “The creaking house”, clearly inspired by the sound of material. The image is taken from the beautiful book “Mosaic of marks, words, material” published by Reggio Children, which clearly illustrates how children are able to be listening and in relation to the nature of the material they are using.

Pictures from the book Mosaic of marks, words, material, Reggio Children

The corrugated cardboard can fold and has got stripes: so the rainbow was a spontaneous association for Lorena, a three-year-old child struggling with a strip of cardboard and indelible markers. In most of their explorations, children spontaneously adopt an empathetic approach of curious researchers that we, as adults, can rediscover only with a certain, initial effort of awareness and intentionality.

Folon, Voyage brun, 2000

By what magical alchemy does the French artist Folon manage to transform an anonymous piece of corrugated cardboard into such an evocative and poetic seascape? I believe that for any professional, a respectful and curious dialogue with the material is an indispensable element to reach a good level both from an aesthetic and functional point of view, as demonstrated by many examples in the field of art and design.
The great Italian designer Bruno Munari reminds us that the observation of natural shapes is very useful to the designer, who gets used to choosing materials for their nature, for their technical characteristics, and not to use iron where it would be better using wood (or glass where plastic would work better, and so on).

There is a limit we cannot go beyond, in the sense of constructive simplicity.

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Architecture scale model in a design exposition, MAXXI Museum, Rome

A special thanks to Maria Kozlowska for her precious contribution and beautiful pictures, including the cover one.


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The Grammar of Stones

Paper and stone

Stones look similar from a distance… but looking closer, each one is unique, shaped over time by water and wind. Just taking it in your hands, the stone speaks to you through its weight, size, texture, color, shape, hardness, maybe its humidity, its sound. A stone appears so unchangeable, immobile, monolithic, indivisible. It is probably thousands years old. Each of them has a long story, maybe it was a part of a mountain or it traveled through the see.

choosing a stone

The poetress Wisława Szymborska wrote a beautiful poem describing an encounter with a stone:

I knock at the stone’s front door
“It’s only me, let me come in.
I want to enter your insides,
have a look around (…)
“Go away,” says the stone.
“I’m shut tight. Even if you break me to pieces,
we’ll all still be closed.

A broken stone

The poetress continues to ask many times:
It’s only me, let me come in.
I’ve come out of pure curiosity.
And every time the stone answers
You shall not enter.
You may get to know me but you’ll never know me through…

I do not want to write it all here, as I warmly suggest you to entirely read this “Conversation with a stone” by youtself, at your own pace. Anyway, this poem beautifully shows the gap between us – humans – and the stone. How do we face with this gap? Can we accept we can not understand something that is too different, too distant from us? Can we just welcome this natural limit, that depends on both our natures? What is our reaction when the message (of a material or of a person) is “You can’t enter here”?

Now, let’s imagine that, in a early childhood context, a child wants to color a stone. What would you suggest? Of course, there is not only one right solution, anyway, I think that if you had a “listening approach” towards the stone, you could easily make a choice that is is attuned and consistent with its essence. Probably, not covering it with acrilic paint, so colorful and plastic, or tracing it with markers…

… maybe immersing it in some water and colored ink. Each stone will absorbe the colored water according to its consistence, so that they will remain all different. Some will change a lot, some will stay the same, some will take a new light shade. I have nothing against ladybug-stones or faces-stones, and so on, but think that – if you do such a thing – you can not really encounter a stone or a ladybug.

Personally, I also do not like using any kind of glue with stones – as I do not perceive they are connected. I prefer to play with weight, balance, compositions. Also, when I present stones in a workshop for children, I do not like to provide glue but other materials, like paper, fabris, threads. As an example, I would like to show you a stand and a workshop I designed for a big event, many years ago.

It was dedicated to paper and stones, two so different materials… one so light and flexible, the other so heavy and fixed. Adults and children of every age could freely come in. They were invited to carefully observe the presented materials, and then, to choose some ones, collecting them in a bag.

How can paper and stones meet? This was the question that people were asked to investigate, sitting on a table with their chosen materials. The objective was not to have a final product but playing with the materials and their encounters, even if a final work often took shape as an answer.

Sculptures with paper and stones

Here, the grammar of paper met the grammar of stones. Before the creative process happens, the potentials of both materials were already there, but silent. While the material is transformed, its nature unfolds. In other words, it is a mutual enrichment, respecting the specific potential and limits of both parties.

Would you like to try? You can use any kind of paper you have at home, of any shape, as well as any kind of stones. You are also welcome to share your investigations… Enjoy and see you to the next chapter of the grammar of matter!

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If you are interested in the world of the materials, you are welcome to join the Facebook group “The grammar of matter”.

Dialogue with a sheet of paper

dialogue with a sheet of paper

Imagine you are seeing a sheet of paper for the first time in your life: who’s that? The sheet speaks to your eyes, only by its presence: color, shape, size, location in the space. Maybe it speaks to your nose by its light smell. Then for the first time you take it in your hands. It communicates through its texture, hardness or softness, consistency, humidity, weight, and also with its sounds.

If you are curious, with an open mind while observing and touching it, the sheet will reveal you its possible transformations. For example, you immediately guess you can fold or roll it: it seems the sheet itself, for its characteristics, invite you to do such actions, as other ones like crumpling or tearing. What objects and tools seem to be attuned to interacting with this material? Scissors, stapler, hole punch, needle, nail, fork… And why not water? In how many ways the sheet can be transformed with these tools?

Each one of these actions can be developed through endless variations. For example, as far as folding, you could use different fold’s sizes, inclinations, proportions, different shapes of the starting sheet, different rhythms… Then, you can combine all these actions: cutting and folding, wetting and crumpling, and so on. Moreover, choosing different types of paper each one will react differently.

“Folding Techniques for Designers” by Paul Jackson; “Il gioco creativo – La carta”

You can see as even a simple material like a sheet of paper holds within itself an entire world, waiting to be discovered. BUT in every dialogue there are two partecipants. Until now, we have considered only the material. What about the other one (me, you or the child that handles it)?
Every action on matter evokes some kind of associations, emotions or memories. For example tearing and cutting are probably perceived in different ways by the same person. Thus, each person has got some favourite actions she likes doing with a specific material. In the meantime, everyone will do the same action in her own way (with a certain speed, muscle tone, care, pressure, mood, focus, etc.). This is why every encounter is unique. Isn’t this amazing?

Photo by Orit Jacobson

In the beautiful book “The spirit of matter”, Nona Orbach and Lilach Galkin deeply investigate just that: the connection between our inner world and materials. They write: Each individual has a way to internal dialogue, usually words, images and metaphors. Living a close relationship to art materials, we find ourselves conversing through them in our personal creative process, as well as when observing others’ development. Physical matter is not merely an object, tool, paste or powder. It is words taken from the concrete world, which undergo personalization and serve to express an internal world.

Now, imagine you wants to create (or you ask children to create) with a sheet of paper a specific product, for example a little boat of a certain shape. In this case, you will not really “see” that sheet in all its potential, as you are focused on your predefined goal and will use paper only as a means. Of course nothing bad with it… But the approach I am speaking about is something else. It is a mutual interaction in which both the two partecipants are playing, so that the material is not completely forced in a prior idea.

This could also be an interesting metaphor of a dialogue between two persons. If one of them is not interested in the other and only talks about himself without listening, whatever person he will have in front of him, he will say the same words. In the meantime, the other one will be totally passive and between the two there will not be any kind of exchange. Instead, being in relationship will open new and unexpected paths.
Of course, there are many possible balances, symmetrical or not, between the two parts. For example, you could have a quite precise idea to realize, like a paper boat, but you will let the material suggest the better shape or dimensions, according to its characteristics.

So, how can you describe your dialogue with a material? Who leads, who follows? The leader and the follower can switch during the same creative process: how does this happen?

Pre-schools teachers from Fano, Italy

In the relational approach I tried to describe, the personality of matter meets the personality of the creator. Before the creative process takes place, both the potentials were already there, but silent. While transforming the material, you are making visible your unique essence; in the meantime, while the material is transformed, its nature unfolds.

Photo by Nona Orbach

Every human being holds within them a combined heritage of characteristics, likes and dislikes that make them who they are. Actions imprinted upon matter may represent this richness. All of these qualities, when assembled and marked down on paper, clay, etc., leave visual signs that create a unique fingerprint. This essential imprint will develop and become enriched throughout our life, if given the chance. This is how the artist and art therapist Nona Orbach beautifully describes the unique essence that every person reveals through matter in the creative process.
In other words, it is a mutual enrichment, respecting the specific potential and limits of both parties. An ecological, empathic approach towards world, to whatever big and tiny thing we meet.

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If you are interested in the world of materials, you are welcome to join “The grammar of matter” group on Facebook.