You don't need to mow down a Wal-Mart employee or kidnap a teenager and force her into prostitution to make headlines in Phoenix. Just ask Jose Avila, a Valley wiseacre who's made news (not to mention the rounds of network talk shows) thanks to his super-thrifty approach to home furnishing. Avila wasn't looking for national attention when he decorated his East Valley apartment entirely in furniture he made from Federal Express shipping cartons. He was just another slacker, tired of sitting on the floor and too broke to afford IKEA. His designs, which include a nine-foot couch, a bed, a desk, and a dining set, are on display at FedExFurniture.com, alongside the various threats and cease-and-desist orders FedEx has lately been winging Avila's way. The 21-year-old pink-haired software engineer isn't worried. Stanford Law School has taken up his case, and Avila intends to prevail in spreading his cardboard-furniture message: "It's OK to be ghetto!"
New Times: Okay. Cardboard furniture. What's going on here?
Jose Avila: I got a job and I moved out here, but I didn't want to screw my friends back in L.A. out of our lease agreement, so I ended up paying rent in two locations. I couldn't afford to go out and buy a bunch of furniture. I was sitting on the floor. Then a friend of mine, Tom, sent me a picture of a small, modest FedEx desk he'd built. I thought, That's ingenious. I've got all these boxes sitting next to me, but I can make it a little more artistic, a little more creative -- more room for my legs; a hideaway compartment in my couch -- so I started designing furniture.
NT: Wait. You're not the originator of FedEx furniture? You stole the idea?
Avila: Well, I stole it from my good friend, Tom. We've been friends for years.
NT: Why FedEx boxes?
Avila: I ship FedEx frequently, and I had a bunch of their boxes lying around. I use them quite a lot, even though I'm being sued by FedEx.
NT: Hang on, here. You have an account with FedEx, so you called them and said, "I need 200 boxes sent over"?
Avila: I think there's a tad over 300 boxes here.
NT: You must be the reason I couldn't find a shipping carton at Kinko's the other day.
Avila: It probably could be related. Maybe some of the people who saw my Web site are trying to make their own furniture.
NT: Does IKEA know about you? Maybe you could get a job with them.
Avila: I've not gotten a call from them yet, but I'll be happy to speak with them. I'm a software engineer, but I've taken drafting and architecture courses, so I have a bunch of structural design experience. And I can make a bed out of a couple dozen cardboard boxes.
NT: If I were the guys from FedEx, I wouldn't be suing you -- I'd be offering you a job as a spokesperson.
Avila: I would have been okay with that a while ago, but I don't think I'd accept that offer now.
NT: You're pissed off at them because they're suing you.
Avila: It's really their actions throughout the whole thing. When they first contacted me, they claimed a whole bunch of legal violations, and I felt threatened, so I hired a lawyer. I was more than happy to work with them; I ship with FedEx all the time; I actually look up to FedEx. So they sent me a cease-and-desist order, and they tried to get my Web site shut down. My lawyers filed a counter-notice.
NT: Has anyone introduced FedEx to the First Amendment?
Avila: Yeah, you'd think they'd know about that stuff. They sent out a letter again asking us to take down the site, and [my lawyer] again said, "Our client is in the right."
NT: What's FedEx's problem?
Avila: They object to my Web site, and to the fact that I'm doing [media interviews] about making boxes into furniture. They started objecting when the whole thing pretty much went public. It's kind of exploded.
NT: I'll say. You're getting ready to do a bunch of talk shows.
Avila: CBS did a thing with me, and then they passed out their footage to everyone, including CNN. The local NBC affiliate came out, and then I got asked to do the Today show. I've done three live shows and six or seven recorded shows. Now I'm getting invited to come on talk shows.
NT: I hear Tyra Banks has a new talk show!
Avila: Tyra Banks contacted me! "Come out and be on our show." A couple days later they called back and said, "We're not going to be able to have you on." It was because of the legal issues with FedEx. I made a blog entry about that, and a few days later Tyra's people called and said, "We'd still like to have you on." Since then, they've disappeared into deliberation about whether I can do the show or not.
NT: If they're going to sue, you could just claim that what you're doing is art. It worked for Warhol.
Avila: I really think what I've done is art. I've had a request to have one of my pieces displayed in a touring museum exhibit. In fact, I'm in the middle of getting real furniture so that I can part with a couple of these pieces for that.
NT: Have people offered money? Have they offered end tables?
Avila: No, but I've had people offer to buy these pieces. They're not for sale.
NT: What about pity money from people who feel bad that you don't have furniture?
Avila: At one point, I was taking donations through the Web site, but I took that off there because this isn't really about the donations. The reason I don't take the whole Web site down and give in is because if I do, it will show big companies that it's okay to go out there and toss legal stuff around and try to censor information. The case is called FedEx vs. Avila, but it's really about corporation censorship vs. freedom of speech. Which the TV media has completely missed. They don't really want to get into the controversial aspect of the story, which is what made the whole story blow up in the first place.
NT: Maybe you should sell the domain name to FedEx. They could sell your furniture designs!
Avila: I was offered $16,000 for the domain name, because of how much traffic we get daily. Someone just wanted to take the site and use it to redirect traffic to overseas poker sites or whatever.
NT: Whoa! Sixteen grand! You could buy a lot of furniture with that.
Avila: At first I thought, "Wow, that's a lot of money. I could get out of debt, buy furniture, donate a bunch of money to the Stanford Law Center," which really helped me out. I tossed the idea around for a couple seconds and I thought, What impression will this give to other companies? I decided that it would send the message that principles can be bought. I decided not to sell the domain, but to blog about what happened. A lot of people have [written to say] "You're stupid for not selling." I feel I've done the right thing.
NT: What's the shelf life of furniture made from boxes?
Avila: I don't know. The bed's not going to have as long a life, because of the number of people who want to see me jump up and down on it.
NT: I'll bet. How comfortable is that bed?
Avila: More comfortable than sleeping on the floor. The padded packs help out a lot.
NT: You're essentially sleeping on bubble wrap. How do you clean furniture made from chipboard boxes?
Avila: I haven't figured out how to clean it yet. It hasn't really gotten dirty. I suppose if you puked on the couch, you could just squeegee it off. I've got no idea. You'll notice on some of the pieces of furniture that there are pieces missing. The couch is missing half a cushion, and my bed is missing a couple of structural pieces. My desk is missing a corner. That's because whenever I have to ship something now, I pretty much have to pull off a hunk of the furniture to get a box.
NT: Because FedEx canceled your shipping account.
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Avila: I can't have them pick up stuff at my house anymore, either. I go to the mom-and-pop shipping center around the corner from here. I've been investigating other shipping options. I just opened an account with UPS.
NT: What's next? Clothing made from Target bags? A car made entirely of empty Mountain Dew cans?
Avila: The next thing is to replace my furniture with real working furniture. I've got a bunch of software projects I've been working on. I've got an air-compressed powered Ping-Pong ball that I've been toying with. Things like that. It's not furniture made from boxes, but maybe people will still think it's cool.