Here at Pop Art School we like to call cardboard “an art teacher’s best friend”. That’s because it’s free, readily available and it can be utilized for 2-D and 3-D projects. Not only that, it feels good to reuse and recycle something destined for the dumpster.
Give a child a cardboard box and they’ll turn it into a careening car, a rocket ship or a magical castle. Give them a cardboard box and art supplies and there’s no limit to what they can create. At home and in the art classroom, it’s used for cardboard craft projects, cardboard painting, cardboard wall art and cardboard sculpture. You name it— your BFF is there for you!
An inspiring video to show students is Caine’s Arcade. We wrote a blog post about it here. Caine is a nine-year-old boy who creates an arcade from cardboard, at his father’s auto parts shop. There weren’t many customers who stopped to play his arcade games until a filmmaker stumbled upon Caine’s cardboard creations. The result is a heartwarming documentary-style short film.
What follows is a compendium of cardboard facts and useful information for the art teacher, scout leader or parent. You’ll learn the history of cardboard and its use by artists. There are links to books and videos on cardboard, and art lessons listed by grade. Start saving cardboard you’re gonna need it!
Cardboard has many names: pasteboard, chipboard, paperboard or corrugated. Paperboard is used in packaging, bookmaking, and formed into a cylinders for toilet paper and paper towel rolls. Corrugated cardboard has a wavy layer (called fluting) sandwiched between two pieces of thick paper, which offers impact resistance in packaging.
When was cardboard invented?
The Chinese are credited with inventing paper and cardboard during the Han Dynasty (first and second century BC). They used treated mulberry tree bark to wrap and preserve foods.
Sir Malcolm Thornhill made the first cardboard box in England. In 1856 corrugated paper was patented and used to line tall hats.
Paperboard became commonplace when major food companies like Kellogg’s used it for their packaging. In 1890, Robert Gair a printer and paper bag maker saw a manufacturing accident in his factory. A metal tool in the machine used to crease paper, cut the paper bags instead. This inspired him to design a machine to make pre-cut and pre-creased paperboard boxes.
How is cardboard made?
Raise your hand if you loved the videos that Mr. Rogers showed of products being manufactured. Me too! Your kids will love this video of corrugated cardboard boxes being manufactured.
Art history and Cardboard
Cardboard as an art medium emerged in the early 1900s, during the Cubist and Dada movements. The most famous Cubist example is Pablo Picasso’s Still Life with Guitar. Dada artists Marcel Janco and Kurt Schwitters used cardboard in different ways. Janco made masks worn in Dadaist plays at Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich.
Kurt Schwitters used trash, debris and printed material to make art which he called Merz. His largest creation was Merzbau a large installation made with cardboard, found materials and personal objects. It was immersive and encompassed eight rooms of his house. During World War ll it was destroyed and later reconstructed and permanently installed in the Sprengel Museum Hannover.
Outsider Art and Cardboard
Outsider, raw, naïve, art brut whatever you want to call it is art made by someone who is not formally trained. Here are two artists who used cardboard extensively in their art making:
Bill Traylor began drawing and painting on cardboard in 1939 at the age of 85, until his death in 1949. in that short timespan, Traylor produced nearly 1,500 pieces of art.
While browsing in a junk shop, artist Oliver Croy discovered bags filled with hundreds of tiny houses. He bought all of them and discovered they were made by a deceased Viennese insurance company clerk named Peter Fritz. Fritz’s exquisitely detailed buildings are made of cardboard, wood, matchboxes, wallpaper scraps, adhesive foil and magazine pages. They were later displayed at the Venice Art Biennale in 2013.
Books about Cardboard
For process oriented projects for preschool and kindergarten aged children check out Barbara Rucci’s book Cardboard Creations.
A Box Can be Many Things by Dana Meachen-Rau is a board book for kids 5 to 7. Make sure you have a box on hand for them to play with afterwards!
Cardboard by Doug TenNapel for Grades 3-6 A boy and his father make creatures from cardboard that come magically to life. A bully makes the creatures evil, and father and son must save their town.
By Kiki Carton has the variety of cardboard furniture projects and designs.
The Art of Cardboard: Big Ideas for Creativity, Collaboration, Storytelling, and Reuse by Laurie Zimmer features contemporary cardboard art.
In the 1970s, architect Frank Gehry, created a line of cardboard furniture still in production today by Vitra. His iconic Wiggle Chair is made with 60 layers of corrugated cardboard. These days, entrepreneurs sell patterns for DIY cardboard furniture online and large manufacturers sell pre-made pieces.
When the Kobe earthquake hit Japan in 1995, Japanese architect, Shigeru Ban, built the ingenious and breathtaking Paper Church, also known as the cardboard cathedral. He was awarded the Pritzker Prize for his humanitarian work building temporary structures with paper tubes at the sites of natural and humanitarian disasters.
Peter Ryan an architect from Melbourne Australia, was in the news in 2005 for building cardboard and plywood housing.
Bucky Labs is an architectural education program from the TU Delft/ The Netherlands. Students are tasked with creating a full-size prototype for sustainable housing. Scrolling through the ideas, I found the Cos-e, an origami folded cardboard shelter!
Short on funds, but want to build a house? You can have a house manufactured by Wikkel House. They wrap large forms with sheets of cardboard and then waterproof the form. It’s easy to put the forms side-by-side to make larger structures, and it’s lightweight, so there’s no need for a poured foundation
Contemporary Cardboard Artists
The work made by these artists ranges from realism to large-scale biomorphic sculptures.
Here’s a video of Ann Weber that shows her dumpster diving for cardboard, working in her studio and installing a sculpture.
Cardboard lessons by grade
Giant Cardboard Donuts
by Art Bar
It’s worth doing this project just so you can take adorable pictures of the kids poking their heads through the holes in the donuts!
Printing with Cardboard
by Art Is Basic
Robot Toy Store
by Mary Making
Pablo Picasso & African Masks
Middle School Cardboard Lessons
Mixed Media Cityscapes
Cardboard drawing & cardboard printing
Cardboard Cubist Sculptures
There is no end to the variety of art projects that can be executed with cardboard. Our art teacher BFF, cardboard, is the most versatile of materials. Even with a meager budget, one can still have surfaces to paint on and materials for sculptures. Leave a comment—we’d love to know what you’ve made in your classroom with cardboard!
Join our Facebook group Freelance Art Teachers in Libraries. The group is for sharing ideas about teaching art and other subjects in public libraries. Whether you are a librarian looking for new ideas or a teacher seeking an enjoyable side hustle, we are here to answer questions and support you!