Profile and photos by Caryn B. Davis

Zach Rotholz has always loved to tinker. As a child, he spent endless hours building different things with Lego and K’NEX, or dismantling the family telephone or television set to gain an understanding of how they worked. Like many children, a cardboard refrigerator box served as a wondrous playscape; but unlike most, Rotholz took his passion for cardboard one step further, and parlayed it into a vocation.

Originally from Chicago, Rotholz left the midwest to attend Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut where he ultimately earned his Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering. During his junior summer in college he did an internship at the Adaptive Design Association in New York. The ADA is a non-profit organization that makes customized adaptive equipment for children with disabilities using eco-responsible, locally available, low cost or no-cost materials like cardboard. From these resources they construct stools, steps, seat inserts, footrests, and reading and writing easels, etc., that enable the children to be more mobile, self sufficient, and comfortable when at home or in school.

“That’s where I did a cardboard apprenticeship and learned how to help kids using cardboard,” says Rotholz who designed and built a wheelchair tray for a young girl with cerebral palsy that was specific to her body and her particular needs.

Back at Yale, Rotholz continued with his cardboard obsession by fabricating modular furniture for dorm rooms as a senior project. The furniture was recyclable, collapsible, durable, affordable, and lightweight, appealing to a college student’s limited budget and propensity for frequently relocating.

“I invented a chair that was also a table and a shelf. A couple of my friends suggested I take the idea to the next step so I did a summer fellowship at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute (YEI) in 2011,” says Rotholz.

The YEI works with Yale students and faculty to determine which new business ventures will be the most commercially viable and “have the highest impact potential.” The Institute encourages collaboration with outside investors and corporate partners to help these start-ups succeed. So while Rotholz was there, he not only had the opportunity to develop his concept further, but he also met with  local cardboard manufacturers and suppliers.

At the end of the summer he participated in YEI’s pitch competition. Bruce Alexander, a former senior vice president of the real estate firm, Rouse and current Yale Vice President and Director of New Haven and State Affairs, recognized the possibilities of Rotholz’s idea and offered his support. Rotholz opened a retail store in downtown New Haven called Chairigami, rolled up his sleeves, and went to work.

“The whole store was like a lab where I would design the furniture and get to see what the customers’ reactions were and brainstorm with them about what they would want,” says Rotholz.

Over the next few years he developed an entire line of furniture that includes seated and standing desks, tables, couches, coffee tables, stools, shelves, sofas, arm chairs, benches, beds, and more. Each piece is crafted from triple wall, a three-ply corrugated cardboard that is derived of seventy percent recycled cardboard and thirty percent FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified virgin fiber. It comes in four by eight foot sheets, each half an inch thick, and is extremely strong, sustainable, packs flat for storing, shipping and moving, and is free of harmful glues and resin.

“I believe in producing recyclable furniture from renewable resources,” Rotholz

says. “And cardboard is really empowering because it is a very forgiving material, and it is accessible and available everywhere.”

Rotholz starts all his designs by first making a rough model using an X-ACTO knife and paper. He then utilizes the computer to build a small-scale preliminary model, iterating it several times until all the kinks are worked out to his satisfaction.

“I use a laser cutter to scale down the model to one tenth the size and go through and make design decisions that way. When I am confident it is just the way I want it, I create a full-scale mock up in CAD,” he says.

The cardboard sheets are then cut into pieces on a large CAD table, which also has a scoring wheel to make the folding easier. Rotholz intentionally keeps his designs and his assembly instructions simple, so that putting the furniture together remains a straightforward process for his clients.

“While I majored in mechanical engineering, I did take a lot of courses in architecture, sculpture, and psychology, which is really important to the design process. Architecture makes you think about how the furniture can be part of the space; and in terms of psychology, it raises these questions – How do people think about objects? What stereotypes do they have about how certain objects work, and what are they made out of?” says Rotholz. “The furniture here forces you to reconsider how things are made, where they are made, and how the furniture can go together.”

Since opening Chairigami in 2011, Rotholz’s market has shifted from college students to parents and people needing trade show booths or start-up offices.

“I have a lot of parents who buy things for their kids to decorate. I also get eco-friendly, sustainably minded customers who really believe in using only locally made or USA made recyclable products and materials,”says Rotholz. “Others love that it’s lightweight and portable; and it can be easily moved around if they are changing their offices, have a trade show, or need to stage an apartment. It’s more of a practical thing in that sense.”

Rotholz got into the trade show industry after he was approached by a company called Flow Sports that makes snowboards, surf boards, and other action sports equipment.

“They wanted a really cool, stick-it-to-the-man trade show booth , so they decided to buy some cardboard furniture. I thought it was a great market and wanted to see who else was out there,” he says.

Chairigami has worked with Headwrapz, building cardboard shelves to showcase their large array of custom helmets at the U.S. Lacrosse National Convention in Philadelphia. Tour Hockey also used shelving from Chairigami to exhibit their new line of skates, but set up a cardboard seating area with a coffee table, sofa, and several chairs where potential buyers could relax. At Comic-Con International in San Diego Chairigami created a cardboard comic booth for Oni Press, a publisher of comic books. And at the World Maker Faire in New York, Amtel, a leading manufacturer of microcontrollers and touch technology semiconductors, had Chairigami make a series of amoeba shaped tables to mirror the Arduino infinity logo, whose products they sell.

“Cardboard table tops were soon graffitied with complex circuit diagrams and system designs that would make a rocket scientist scratch his head – a beautiful marriage of electrical complexity and cardboard simplicity,” writes Rotholz on his blog.

Chairigami also works with entities seeking cardboard furniture as a temporary solution or permanent one. For example, when the Yale University Library was undergoing a renovation, Rotholz created a series of customized cubicle dividers. This allowed each staff member to have a semi-private work area so they could maintain productivity at their temporary office location.

For See Click Fix, a company who invented an app that enables people worldwide “to report and track non-emergency issues anywhere in the world via the internet,” Rotholz designed a piece that could be easily converted from a cubicle into a conference table. And at Better ITS, a corporation that provides technology solutions to other businesses, they also made use of Chairigami cardboard cubicles when they first opened their office space.

“Everyone always starts out skeptical and wonders if the furniture is going to be strong enough and how will it look aesthetically? Once people sit down on the furniture, because it is a very tactile kind of thing, and they experience it, it’s a trust they begin to have with cardboard. It is kind of beautiful to feel because it democratizes design in a way and makes it accessible to everyone from kids to a company’s CEO,” says Rotholz. “It’s a very green sustainable material, but it also has a childlike sensibility about it. You can customize it. Draw on it or decorate it. It becomes customizable and personal.”

So what’s next for this cardboard king?

“As I think more about the future of cardboard carpentry and where could this take me, I am really interested in education and building pop-up classrooms or mobile  classrooms that support tinkering and hands on engineering. I am working with local schools right now to design these tinkering studios and teaching them how to create a pop-up cardboard lab,” says Rotholz.

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