Knowing when to fold them

Rotholz creates cardboard furniture at Chairigami

Zachary Rotholz relaxes on a cardboard sofa he designed, in his York Street store, Chairigami. Image courtesy of Mr. Rotholz.


By Hank Hoffman

Where most of us might see cardboard in prosaic terms — the material equivalent of instructions on how to assemble cheap shelving — Zachary Rotholz sees poetry.

“It’s a raw, simple thing,” Rotholz declares. “People played with cardboard boxes when they were kids. It kind of reminds you of that — growing up and using your imagination.”

Rotholz opened Chairigami, which specializes in making and selling cardboard furniture, in September. In an interview at his York Street store, Rotholz — who graduated from Yale University last spring with a degree in mechanical engineering — tells me he has sold an estimated 200-250 pieces of furniture: tables, chairs, desks, sofas, shelving, and stands for iPads and iPhones. Prices range from $15 for a smartphone “lounge” to $180 for a chaise lounge. At the time of our interview, Rotholz was working on his first cardboard bed.

“Cardboard’s everywhere. You can find it in recycling, office spaces, houses. Because I’ve learned to work with and gotten into the material — because I can paint with cardboard — it’s an unbelievable way of sharing ideas with people, a medium of expression I can take with me anywhere I go,” says Rotholz.

The concept for Chairigami unfolded in the summer between Rotholz’s junior and senior years at Yale. Rotholz worked for the Adaptive Design Association, a New York-based nonprofit that makes equipment for disabled children out of the same Triple Wall cardboard he uses. According to Rotholz, it is more economical to use the cardboard for custom equipment than to pay for expensive manufactured equipment. During his “summer of cardboard carpentry,” Rotholz learned how to design and work with the material. In his senior year, Rotholz made cardboard furniture for his roommates — “they loved it,” he says — and based his senior project on the material.

The other inspiration, of course, came from the Japanese paper folding art of origami. (Rotholz has several books on origami set out on one of his coffee tables.) Origami is an example in aesthetics of “the idea that folding a structure adds incredible strength and form,” says Rotholz.

As a demonstration, Rotholz takes a small piece of paper and tries to stand it on its edge. It falls over. But when he folds the same piece of paper in half, it stands up. Folding it further, Rotholz asserts, the piece of paper can become a column and start bearing loads.

“The idea that you can find structure in folding is a beautiful concept,” says Rotholz. “Folding is a fantastic manufacturing process because it doesn’t leave dust or waste. It takes out the sharp objects and is relatively safe and low energy but adds incredible strength.”

As far as the stylish modernist design of his furniture, Rotholz cites designers Charles and Ray Eames as his biggest inspirations.

“They approached design with a childlike mentality — excitement and iteration and the desire to play, and also a desire to design for the common man, not elite design,” he says.

Cardboard, Rotholz exults, has the virtues of being recyclable, sustainable, and readily available. Unlike steel or wood, cardboard isn’t super strong. It presents a design challenge, says Rotholz, to “get the necessary strength to make functional pieces out of it. You could say it’s just strong enough to hold you up or to make pieces.”

Rotholz describes his furniture as “temporary yet durable.” By temporary, he means perhaps a couple of semesters, “enough to hang out, set up shop, and then move out.” Because his pieces are made from a single material — Triple Wall is composed of 70 percent recycled cardboard and 30 percent virgin fiber — they are easy to recycle.

A cardboard recliner designed by Rotholz. Image courtesy of Mr. Rotholz.


The durability of his furniture is demonstrated by a love seat on his display floor. Covered with writing by customers — Rotholz encourages his customers to customize their Chairigami furniture — the love seat was made last September.

Referring to the two rounded indentations worn by the weight of countless rear ends, Rotholz says, “It’s the most comfortable piece in here. It conforms to your body and distributes stress.”

Rotholz likens his chairs to a new pair of shoes that need to be broken in.

“When you first wear them, they’re not comfortable, but the more you wear them, the more the shoe changes and evolves to your foot,” Rotholz says.

The seats of his chairs or sofas bend to relieve high concentrations of stress and conform with repeated use to their owner’s contours. Chairigami also offers a couple of different coating options for spill-resistant tabletops — organic shellac or an industrial coating used on food boxes. While the latter is recyclable, the shellacked surface is not — it needs to be stripped away before recycling the furniture.

While his initial design work consisted of small prototypes — “working with an X-Acto knife and sketching with cardboard” – Rotholz now uses a SolidWorks CAD, or computer-assisted design, program. He’s worked so much with the designs that they have become second nature to him.

“Once you have a design language it’s easy to iterate on that and change and tweak it so you can get all the pieces you need,” Rotholz says. “But initially it took so long to figure out. There are all these decision trees you have to make when you design something.

“People laugh when they come in here, but that moment of humor is also a moment of conversion,” says Rotholz. “It forces people to think about it and that’s an important step, to get people to dwell on the idea of cardboard, how things assemble.”

That’s thinking outside the box.

More information is available at chairigami.com.

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