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Putting paper to good use

Furniture from paper? It may seem surprising but Bobby Zachariah and Prema Gnanavolivu have found ways of recycling paper to make furniture that is both avant-garde and eco-friendly.

MOBILES, BAGS, dolls and toys... yes, making these out of paper is possible. But what about chairs, tables and beds? Wouldn't the stresses and strains imposed by daily use bring them down like that proverbial pack of cards? "Definitely not," said Bobby Zachariah and Prema Gnanavolivu, as they offered me a chair (made of paper!) and served me a cup of tea, of course, on a paper tray, which they placed on a new age paper table.

The two went on to enlighten me about the avant-garde and exciting possibilities of `appropriate waste paper technology' and `cardboard carpentry'.

`Recycle and reuse' is the mantra behind this technology, which uses cardboard, corrugated and waste paper to fashion a whole line of lifestyle items and furniture, avoiding, thereby, the use of wood.

Bobby is a civil engineer with a PhD in Special Education and Prema is an interior designer and social worker. They head the special education and work skills unit of Vidyasagar, formerly the Spastics Society of India. They are also actively involved in promoting the use of waste paper technology in the rural areas.

Bobby and Prema talk about their interest in appropriate technology...

Could you say something more about the furniture and whether paper is a viable alternative to wood that is conventionally used?

Bobby: Cardboard comprises the basic structure of the furniture. The paper, which is glued on, strengthens the structure. Designing the furniture calls for a considerable degree of engineering skill. A special technique is required even to stick the paper. The cardboard is glued the same way as plywood. Waterproofing is done to ensure that each piece will be as easy to maintain as any glass-topped table! Incidentally, the glue that is used is free of chemicals.

Apart from chairs and tables, what are the other items of furniture that can be made out of paper and cardboard?

Prema: Furniture for the entire house can be made using this technology. Dining tables, beds, cots, solar cookers, simple kitchen tools, trays, office organisers, pencil boxes... the possibilities are amazing. Besides, mobiles, toys and educational aids can also be made. We make toys for rural areas using cycle tubes, paper and cane.

Do you follow any particular innovative design philosophy?

Prema: We not only design conventional items, but have also worked on basic shapes. Thus a cube can be transferred to any part of a home as a piece of modular furniture. A 2"-cube can serve as a paperweight, a 6"-cube can be used as a lamp base, a 12"-15" cube would make an ideal single-seater, two 6"-cubes can make a coffee table base, an open cube can be used as a hanging lamp shade, wall bracket or show case... there is so much scope for innovation and imagination.

I hear you include this technology as part of therapy in your work with spastic children?

Prema & Bobby: The idea is to motivate disabled children to pursue income-generating activities. We did two years of research in this area before formulating a plan. Disabled children also need to change furniture often. We hold short courses for their parents too. Making furniture is part of our therapy programme for spastic and hyperactive children. Also, paper is a safe material to work with.

Would you recommend this furniture alternative for the disabled?

Prema & Bobby: Definitely. It is lightweight, safe and can be made at home too. We've got `special therapy seats' for spastic children.

What has been the general response to cardboard and paper furniture?

Prema: Initially, there were doubts regarding the sturdiness and durability of the furniture. But after using it, people have come back with a positive response. We have a continuous flow of orders, which we are hard put to meet.

What future do you envisage for paper furniture?

Bobby: We want to spread awareness of this technology and a venue to popularise it, especially among Fine Arts students and designers. We want more and more children to take it up as an income generation activity. We are conducting a one-year course at Sanskriti, 25/1, Nowroji Road, Chetpet, Chennai-31. Those interested can apply for the next course.

I need hardly add that paper furniture represents an alternative way of life, one that is environment-friendly.


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