Take a look at the chair you’re sitting in. What’s it made out of? Was it manufactured locally? Chances are, it’s constructed from a mix of materials that have a lengthy supply chain spanning much of the globe. Not so with the chairs made by Chairigami, a one-person company founded by recent Yale graduate Zach Rotholz. Chairigami’s furniture is made from local materials (near the company headquarters of New Haven, Connecticut), recyclable, lightweight, flat-packed, and easy to assemble. It’s also made entirely out of thick, triple-wall cardboard.
Rotholz first became familiar with cardboard furniture while working during a summer in college for Adaptive Design, a New York City nonprofit that custom-designs cardboard furniture for children with disabilities. "I learned about the iterative design process, and about prototyping and creating cardboard."
So for his senior project, Rotholz designed an entire modular furniture system made out of cardboard. It was specifically for college students, who often have to move furniture in and out of rooms. A shelf, table, and chair were all combined into one design that could be rearranged to fit immediate needs and flat-packed during moving day. If students were feeling particularly creative, they could even draw on the furniture.
Eventually, Rotholz decided to take his idea to the next level, spending a summer at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute before launching Chairigami. The entire operation was bootstrapped: Rotholz used his $5,000 of bar mitzvah money to launch the company, which now sells most of its products online via a free Weebly website. "It was very grassroots. I tested and iterated as I went. A lot of the furniture ideas came from the website. People would come on the web page and give their suggestions," he says.
Look on Rotholz’s site and you can see that he now makes a wide variety of relatively affordable products: sofas, desk chairs, standing desks, coffee tables, shelving, and even an iPhone case. The chairs last about a year, while the tables can make it up to four years. No glues or fasteners are necessary to put the recyclable items together—they all just fit into slots.
Rotholz explains in an email that the original Chairigami chair was the most difficult piece of furniture he has constructed yet. "There is such a rich and diverse body of chair designs, it’s hard to design something original and in keeping with your own design philosophy," he writes. "As I designed the first chair, I also developed my own unique design language using triple wall, slots, and folds." After going through 10 iterations of the chair, the other furniture items came naturally, Rotholz says. "I only had to alter aspect ratios and repeat the design concept in various scales and orientations to achieve these pieces."
These days, Chairigami pieces can be found in office spaces, at trade shows, and at temporary events of all kind—anywhere that requires furniture to be packed in and packed out quickly. Most recently, Rotholz designed 2,000 stools for a chain of summer camps. They’re replacing Ikea furniture.
The Chairigami website, he says, "is going from a retail store to more of a portfolio—a place to curate my designs and show potential clients what I can do and how I’ve innovated."