This 23-year-old makes durable, water-resistant furniture from cardboard

And they sell like hot cakes.
Deena Theresa
Karthic Rathinam and Out of the Box furnitures.
Karthic Rathinam and Out of the Box furnitures.

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A visibly eager Karthic Rathinam shows off his business card, which he folds and flexes at ease. The card shapeshifts into a mobile-phone holder. He then proceeds to demonstrate an elaborate and intricately-designed desk organizer. Rathinam goes beyond - he directs my attention to some neat stools that can handle up to 330 pounds (150 kg), a desk, pen stands, a shelf, and even a light holder, all of which can be assembled, wait for it, without nuts, bolts, or adhesives.

This is Out Of The Box, where Rathinam builds furniture made of cardboard. "We think not just outside the box, but also what we can do with the box," he tells IE

His inventions? Borne solely out of necessity.

At a crucial juncture in his life, Rathinam from Chennai, India, had to make a tough decision.

In 2018, his college's property was seized by the state government in India due to an alleged land scam, and 90 students in his batch were given two choices - go to France and attend a design school that was affiliated with the college in India, or move to a small, temporary campus with limited learning facilities. For 70 of them, choosing France was a no-brainer. For Karthic, well, he was among the 20 that decided to stay in India. 

Three years down the lane, Rathinam's startup builds furniture that could give the likes of Ikea a run for their money.

This 23-year-old makes durable, water-resistant furniture from cardboard
Rathinam's DIY furniture at his college accommodation in 2018.
Provided by Karthic Rathinam

"I had to sort my accommodation when I shifted to the temporary campus. Initially, I considered furnishing the place myself, putting my skills to use as a design student. My first option was wood, but I realized that it would be unaffordable. That's when I noticed the cardboard boxes lying around - I'd moved in with so many of them," the 23-year-old tells us. 

He wasted no time. The sophomore made a few necessities, including a bed, cupboard, bookshelf, and a chair, from the discarded cardboard boxes, which lasted for a solid eight-month period. Word of mouth spread, and soon Rathinam had friends coming over to his place to see the marvel.

Experiment, fail, adapt, improvise, repeat

"That was more of a proof-of-concept," he says.

Forward to 2020, Rathinam had graduated and acquired more skills from his internships as a product designer. Before he could rack his brain and think of future possibilities, the pandemic struck. 'I noticed that sanitizer dispensing stands that were sold in the market were rather pricey. So, I decided to make a low-cost one," he says.

He built one with cardboard and shared the video of the stand on Whatsapp. It went viral, resulting in 2,500 orders across India in the first week. "It took me by surprise. Moreover, the logistics weren't something I could handle by myself, so I reached out to factories, met a lot of vendors, learned the ropes of handling a business, and more. I had to change the manufacturing model too," he says.

This 23-year-old makes durable, water-resistant furniture from cardboard
The sanitizer stands.
Provided by Karthic Rathinam

The first few pieces were faulty, but Rathinam was not the one to back down. But, once the final product was good to go, he realized that the shipping cost was higher than the product he made. The quick-witted Rathinam flattened his sanitizer dispenser and added DIY instructions so that the customer could assemble it themselves.

In a short period, Rathinam got orders from across the globe. A team in South Africa reached out to him for a collaboration wherein they would manufacture the dispensers and give him royalties for the design. It led to nearly 23,000 pieces being sold.

But, the euphoria was short-lived. Demand for the sanitizer stands dropped, and Rathinam recognized that he needed to branch out and refine his 'proof-of-concept' of making furniture out of cardboard.

Truly out of the box

After a few hiccups, which included contracting the COVID-19, Rathinam decided to refine his idea and set up camp in Gujarat, a state in India known for good-quality paper. He worked with a small team and slightly altered the properties of paper, which made it stronger. However, he had to return to his home state, Tamil Nadu, as the idea was touted to be too unconventional by vendors. 

Once things settled, Rathinam and his team of four got to work. Fascinated with the material that once furnished his living space, he created designs that are engineered to take advantage of the structural properties of the material. 

Early this year, after multiple prototypes and testing, Out of the Box launched eight cardboard products, including a stool, desk organizer, laptop stand, pen stand, square shelf, hexagon shelf, table lamp, and desk.

This 23-year-old makes durable, water-resistant furniture from cardboard
The Out Of The Box team.
Provided by Karthic Rathinam

Every product on the website can be disassembled into a flat pack for shipping. "One of the major things that I was insistent on was the absence of adhesives. Everything works on the principle of interlocking, easing out the process for the customer," says Rathinam. This also ensures that the customer feels involved.

How strong is the furniture? "We use corrugated cardboard, which is more durable. We had to sift through several prototypes — at least 50 — to get to the final one. We've also ensured that we know the properties of cardboard like the back of our hand. The orientation of the flutes — wave-shaped structures that give strength to reinforce corrugated cardboard — is used to our advantage. We've spent a lot of time researching and identifying the pressure points of cardboards. Every design is cut in a manner that adds structural strength to the product, all while making it extremely easy for the user to assemble the furniture," he explains. 

Additionally, all products come with a plant-based starch coating that makes them water and oil-proof. They are also extremely economical, something that Rathinam was adamant about. 


This 23-year-old makes durable, water-resistant furniture from cardboard
Rathinam envisions a future where furniture made of cardboard will be the norm.

Rathinam is aware that he's part of the larger movement wherein there is less waste,  products are eco-friendly, and is a part of the circular economy.

"Initially, that wasn't the plan," he admits. "But we started pairing up with lots of organizations that are staunch believers in sustainability. Cardboard is 100 percent recyclable. And now, we have set up office spaces that are completely carbon neutral. Eventually, this seemed like the bigger purpose. The aim is to create a sustainable alternative to wood, plastic, and other materials used to make furniture whilst making it cost-friendly and customizable. Ideally, the end goal is to make cardboard products the norm among people," he says.

Did he ever have a target audience? "Yes," Rathinam immediately quips. "Initially, I focused on students and startups. As a result, I made a generic range, which is the one up on the website right now. We're currently planning on an office range that will have light holders, tables, bookshelves, and door frames made of cardboard. The next group we're looking at is kids. Cardboard is light-weight, and there is no question of it being dangerous if it accidentally falls on them," he says. 

The fourth range would cater to pop-up stalls. "Imagine packing an entire stall for an event in a box and then unpacking it to set up your pop-up. I've seen such concepts being done with plastic, but evidently, cardboard is undoubtedly cost-efficient. It can be easily printed on, which again saves up on banners and other advertising material," explains Rathinam. 

Cardboard can have its own flaws, and Rathinam's team is working on the same. "We're looking at pest and fire-proofing the furniture while simultaneously scaling it. The long-term goal would be to make temporary housing," he confides in us. 

Though cardboard is recyclable, Rathinam wants Out Of The Box to come full circle. "We're considering setting up a space wherein people can discard their paper and other cardboard boxes. In return, they'll be given one of our products, in accordance with the weight of the paper they've dumped," he says.

It all sounds very rewarding if you ask me. Is this what he has always wanted? Rathinam smiles. "My dad is an architect, and so are my mum and sister," he continues. "I used to help my dad make models of houses and would render my sister's CAD work. So, I had that creative flow already working for me. But, I didn't want to get involved in architecture. That's how I ended up choosing product design. And now, I love creating things for the benefit of others," he adds.

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