Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

That Cardboard Bed Was Supposed to Be a Utopia

Yes, you can have athletic sex in a cardboard bed. The rumor that the cursed COVID Olympics in Tokyo was promoting celibacy through flimsy furniture has since been debunked, but that doesn’t mean that those beds aren’t worthy of further scrutiny. It’s not their material that’s weak but the design ambition behind them. Stylish temporary architecture has been a hallmark of Olympic Games past — just look at Los Angeles in 1984, where construction scaffolding became enchanting Pop villages — but these boxy furniture pieces read as designed for forgettability, not engineered to give bodies under stress the best rest.

Why build another box when, since the 1960s, cardboard dreamers have demonstrated that the material can bend, curve and roll, much like the Irish gymnast Rhys McClenaghan, who went viral on Twitter jumping on one of said beds to disprove its anti-sex reputation? Why build something in white or brown when they could be red, yellow, or blue or have polka dots or Olympic rings?

Once upon a time, cardboard was going to save us all from conformity. “Those beds are pretty basic,” says Andrew Blauvelt, director of the Cranbrook Art Museum, and the curator of the 2015-2016 Walker Art Center exhibition Hippie Modernism, which showcased some of the weirdest and wildest experiments in temporary living environments of the 1960s. “The Olympic Village is doing it for ecological reasons, and that’s the funny thing. The 1960s stuff was supposed to reflect a new modern lifestyle — it was supposed to be longer-lasting rather than just tossed away after use.” Cardboard attracted attention back then because of its ubiquity as first a byproduct of, and then a design problem produced by, the postwar culture of consumption. Cardboard was lightweight, it was portable, and it lent itself to D.I.Y. and customization. Giving boxes a second life in the home was a positive tweak to throwaway culture.