In 2011, I was taking part in the Institute of Cultural Inquiry's residency series entitled 100/10. Digging around in the ICI's Ephemera Kabinett I discovered a 1910 issue of Ladies' Home Journal with an article by a designer named Louise Brigham discussing her method of making furniture from packing crates. Intrigued by this early example of design using recycled materials, as well as by her modernist aesthetic, I dug further, and eventually ended up writing an entire book about Brigham's "box furniture." It was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2019.
Extracts from Chapter 1
In the summer of 1906, a young Bostonian named Louise Brigham spent a few months on the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago, more than 800 miles above the Arctic Circle. She stayed in Longyear City (Longyearbyen), at a camp which housed about 80 men in primitive conditions: no electricity, no water supply. Moreover, all food and equipment had to be brought in from Norway by ship during the summer months from over 500 miles away and stockpiled to supply the camp during the eight months it would be cut off from the outside world by winter ice. There were no roads, only footpaths, and anything arriving at the Advent Bay dock had to be brought the half-mile up to the camp by human labor.
When Brigham lived in Longyearbyen, its population consisted mainly of Svalbard reindeer, Arctic foxes, polar bears, and migratory seabirds, accented by a few isolated clumps of coal miners. Little more than a loose cluster of tents, a few sheds, and a handful of wooden buildings, the most impressive of the camp’s structures were a large, abandoned Norwegian tourist cabin that had been converted to living quarters for the miners (it would later become the company store), and the one-and-a-half story, eight-room “portable house” where Brigham lived.[iii] It was sparsely furnished, and Brigham quickly decided to see what she could do to make living conditions more bearable by constructing some furniture.
The stacks of leftover boxes on Spitsbergen prompted Brigham to continue some earlier experiments she had made in building furniture out of scrap wood. Perhaps the crucial factor pushing her to move forward was the bare fact that there was no other source of wood. As she wryly observed a few years later, the sole local ‘tree’ was the polar willow, Salix polaris, a dwarf shrub that grows only a few inches tall.[vi] Out of the canned-goods boxes stacked around the camp, Brigham built an assortment of furniture.
More about the book
- "The Radical Possibilities of a Box" by Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson — an article about the book in Curbed (May 2020).
- "Louise Brigham talk" — my conversation with Carrie Paterson, editor of DoppelHouse Press, and Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson — about the book and how it connects to issues around sustainable design for living today, especially in the area of housing.