Moving out of your college dorm at the end of the semester would be a lot easier if you knew you could just chuck all the furniture out the window and drive back to Minnesota. You know what else? It would also be a lot more environmentally friendly if you recycled it. Zach Rotholtz, a classically trained clarinetist and recent Yale alum, developed an innovative way to create affordable, fully customizable and recyclable furniture that you don’t need screws, glue, or duct tape to build. Chairigami, Rotholtz’s studio and furniture outpost in New Haven, Connecticut, occupies a prominent retail space adjacent to the Yale campus, and the presence of those little cardboard tables in the storefront are sure to bring in curious passersby.
What started as a senior project in Mechanical Engineering has now become a living workshop devoted to cardboard design. You name it and Zach the cardboard man can build it—cardboard sofas, cardboard chaise lounges, cardboard shelves and, yes, even cardboard iPhone docks. I caught up with Zach and talked to him about the motivation behind his wonderfully named brainchild, transience, and classical music.
Splice Today: How did you come up with the idea for Chairigami?
Zach Rotholtz: A mentor introduced me to this book called The Further Adventures of Cardboard Carpentry and it’s right out of the 70s, 1973. It takes a look at what you can do with triple wall cardboard, which is three layers thick. It’s almost like plywood, it’s relatively inexpensive and it’s very, very easy to customize. So I sort of rediscovered this whole age of the 70s where everything was hands-on and do it yourself. Now it’s more like the throwaway culture of buying things and you don’t know where they came from or how they were manufactured. So I loved this idea of cardboard because as a kid I was playing with Legos, like crazy building stuff. Then during my senior year at Yale for my senior project in Mechanical Engineering, I decided to use a single sheet of triple wall cardboard to see if I could make it into a modular furniture system—a chair, a shelf and a table all in one. No glue.
ST: No glue?
ZR: No glue! I went through a million iterations, and this is what I came up with.
ST: So this chair is the first piece?
ZR: Yep, this is the first piece from my Mechanical Engineering project at Yale.
ST: It’s very comfortable, like I’m sitting on a puff of air.
ZR: It’s secure, and if you turn it on this side it becomes a table, and if you turn it on this side it becomes shelving.
ST: Like a transformer!
ZR: The idea was to have a compact furniture system so that people could redesign their common rooms in a few seconds. Sort of like Legos for furniture.
ST: How long have you been doing this?
ZR: I started the company in May 2011.
ST: Wow, so recently. I’m wondering if you can tell us about your ideas of transience, and how Chairigami fits into that? Are we in a particular portable furniture moment?
ZR: Well, the idea is that college kids, we’re still trying to figure out our identity, where we’re living, who we’re gonna be. We don’t want to stay anywhere too long because that doesn’t keep the plot moving. So I figured, why not have our furniture mirror who we are and what we’re going through and how we’re changing, evolving. I wanted to make it collapsible, something that you can detach yourself from. So it’s really embracing temporary furniture and rethinking that.
ST: I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent and how many bottles of wine I’ve had, all fighting with screws and pieces of wood from IKEA. And then it’s like, when I finally have that hot mess put together, drunk, frustrated, half asleep and delirious, the sun coming up in the background, the whole bookshelf I’ve just spent hours laboring on leans to the left and I’m too over it to feel like starting over.
ZR: When I designed most of this furniture it was for simplicity. It’s just three parts, and it all folds up. It’s nothing like IKEA where you get it and it looks good and you throw it in the dumpster. This way you get it, you use it, you make it yours, and then you recycle it. It’s sustainable.
ST: Oh, so people can actually make it their own?
ZR: Yeah! The thing is the cardboard itself really lends itself to being a blank canvas, and it sort of reminds me of Converse shoes, you know? Where the cool thing to do is to draw on them, make them your own, personalize them because the material lends itself to that.
ST: Tell us what kinds of things are possible with triple wall cardboard. What can you build?
ZR: Shelves, drafting tables and bars are very necessary sometimes [laughs]. But people have been asking for beds, beer pong tables. A preacher came in and asked for a lectern that would be portable!
ST: And how much would all that cost?
ZR: The chairs go for $60, the bookshelf is $50, the desk is $80, and the bar is $100.
ST: Wow, so it’s affordable, durable, and fun. Okay, so there’s a lot of classical music going on in the store right now. Are you a classical music aficionado?
ZR: I am. I play the clarinet. I did a lot of must stuff as a kid. I went to music camp for a bunch of years. I got really into chamber music. Sometimes I get into rock, the classic rock stuff, but in the mornings usually I play classical. I was actually thinking about bringing my piano in here. It would be a great way to bring people in.
ST: Now would that be a real piano or would it be made out of cardboard?
ZR: [Laughs] It’s a digital piano, but maybe the music stand could be made of cardboard.
ST: I have to point out the irony of coming into a store that’s full of cardboard on a rainy day like this.
ZR: Yeah [laughs]. People ask me about water proofing all the time.