Zachary Rotholz, founder of Chairigami

Join the Fold

Origami – the ancient Asian art of folding paper into objects – is beautiful, all right. But unless you need a drinking cup or a newspaper hat in a pinch, you can’t say it’s very practical.

Fold a chair, or a bookcase, or a kitchen table, however, and the world will beat a path to your storefront.

When origami fans find Chairigami, the shop/showcase/studio of “cardboard furniture for the urban nomad” at 286 York St., they feel an immediate bond. A spiritual bond, not the other kind. Chairigami founder Zach Rotholz eschews glue or other such bonding chemicals in his folded, slotted furniture designs. That’s a purity to his craft that’s attractive to both modernist designers and environmentalists.

The process of folding cardboard into functional furniture comes easily to Rotholz. “I was a big K’NEX buff when I was a kid. I could think of a machine in my head, and it would be so easy to convert it into blocks. I worked last summer at a non-profit that builds equipment for disabled children, out of cardboard. I took my principles for cardboard carpentry out of that, the same design process.”

Fielding a compliment he gets on one of Chairigami’s smallest items, an iPhone

976 Chapel St., New Haven, CT (map)
(847) 727-0036 |
Mon-Fri: 10-6pm, Sat: 11:30 – 8:30pm, Sun 1-6pm
Prices range from $15 to $180

stand, he mentions offhandedly that he just came up with the concept the previous night. There are already a dozen of the stands on display in the shop.

“I’m huge into the simplicity of design,” Rotholz explains. A Chairigami chair, for instance, consists of five pieces: “Two supports, which the front and back fold over. No glue.”

He uses an extra-sturdy “triple wall” cardboard for his constructions, which ranges from coffee tables and bookcases (priced at $70 each) to a freestanding desk ($100) and an ingeniously simple-yet-solid armchair ($150).

Chairigami isn’t just about using recyclable materials to construct items which other manufactures often upholster unnecessarily. It’s also about the economy of using one item for multiple purposes. One of Rotholz’s benches can be turned on its side and become a bookcase.

Rotholz is just 22 years old, freshly graduated

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from Yale. He uses what he learned in Mechanical Engineering classes to inform his design aesthetic. “I did my senior project in cardboard,” he explains. “I get really into the material, and explore that to the utmost.” He could have taken this passion in a number of directions. The retail opportunity was made possible through advice and support from the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute.

While Rotholz is expounding on his artistic medium of choice – “When you get to know the material that well, it becomes second nature, like painting or singing” – his sole Chairigami colleague, an intern named Byron, emerges from a back room where he’s been cutting flat cardboard Christmas trees. The discussion turns to a recent injury Byron sustained, the most dreaded occupational hazard of cardboard chair construction: paper cuts.

Those who laser-cut and assemble paper chairs certainly can suffer for their art. But injuries are rare. Chairigami furniture is defined by its lightness, its gentleness, its unassuming nature. This is not furniture that threatens or intimidates. You wouldn’t find it in a Western movie barfight.

“There are hardcore fans already,” Zach Rotholz says, though the shop is just five months old. “One of these tables can be a real conversation piece. Customers have told me that they get their friends to sign it.”

“This is a trial store to see how everything works. I wanted to be able to talk with customers. Yes, it’s a bit of a risk. You’re at the risk of putting yourself out there every day. But I don’t see this as a huge undertaking. And isn’t this the sort of thing you’re supposed to do when you’re young?”

Zach Rotholz’s products might fold, but his business isn’t likely to.

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