words Riya Patel
Everybody knows that you can make paper from wood,” says Mieke Meijer. “But I thought it would be a nice idea to do the opposite, and try to make wood from newspaper.” The Dutch designer’s whimsical recycling project first came about while she was studying at Design Academy Eindhoven in 2003, but was left forgotten in a drawer until years later, when Arjan van Raadshooven and Anieke Branderhorst, from the design company Vij5, helped Meijer realise its potential as a sustainable material with real applications in design.
Meijer made the first Newspaper Wood planks by hand, through a laborious process of coating sheets of old newspaper with glue and tightly rolling them into thick logs. With special blades and tools, the logs were sawed, turned, milled and sanded. Finishing them with varnish or wax made the wood waterproof. Cutting into the log at angles exposed the artificial grain effect left by the ink on the old paper.
But producing the planks by hand had its limitations. “Any small area of sheet that wasn’t coated with glue would leave a weak spot in the material,” Meijer says. To industrialise the process, Meijer and Vij5 designed a bespoke machine that could compress and glue the paper with enough uniformity to make Newspaper Wood viable for large-scale production. “At the moment the machine is quite slow, only producing one or two paper rolls a day,” says Meijer. “But with more testing and more machines we could start thinking about really large-scale production.”
In Milan this year, Vij5 presented a collection of experimental Newspaper Wood objects, asking seven Dutch designers to work with and test the material in their own way. Projects like Floris Hovers’ Press to Open (a cabinet resembling a small printing press) and Christian Kocx’s Reading Light make use of existing woodworking techniques to explore the material’s structural potential. Others emphasise the aesthetic quality of the grain: playful design duo rENs made a set of brass and wood jewellery inspired by the words and characters that can still be read from the layers of compressed newspapers. For Meijer “it’s more of an aesthetic material”. She says: “You can try to handle it like wood but you find that some things don’t really work.”
As with all new materials, there’s still a lot of developing to do with Newspaper Wood. The planks are limited in span to the width of an open newspaper, making larger projects, such as Greetje van Tiem’s writing desk, only possible by using the material as a veneer. Newspaper Wood’s strength in use is also determined by the toughness of the glue; replacing natural glue with a chemical resin could improve this but would mean the product would no longer be biodegradable.
“There are still things we come across and we need to find solutions for,” says Meijer. “We’ve thought about combining newspaper with real wood … or using cardboard tubes that are made in spirals to get longer lengths,” she says. The young designer is also aware that newspaper itself is becoming scarcer as a raw material. “Maybe in 10 years, we’ll be unable to make this wood because we don’t produce newspapers any more,” she says. “We have to see. In the meantime, we’re concentrating on how to enlarge the manufacturing process, and seeing if there’s potential for this material in architecture too.”