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Built to Last

Zachary Rotholz ’11, the 22-year-old who opened a cardboard furniture store on York Street this September, is getting tired of explaining his work to customers. He maintains a friendly and enthusiastic attitude. Yet when he’s asked for what feels like the millionth time, “Is the chair sturdy?” you can hear a bit of fatigue and boredom in his response:

“There’s only one way to find out! Try it!”

Rotholz explains that he has to sell his products twice. First, he must sell the concept of Chairigami. Only after that can he sell the furniture itself. He has also come to realize that he himself is as much on display as is any piece of furniture in the room. Visitors hit him with all the frequently asked questions. Why did you decide on cardboard? How do you come up with your designs? Sometimes, the questions are personal. A Yale student on assignment for a writing class asked him about his love life.

At first, Rotholz appreciated the attention. “It was nice being called ‘the Chairigami Guy,’ ” he said. “But sometimes, I want to talk about something other than cardboard…”

Chairigami was getting media attention even before business took off. By mid-November, Rotholz had made around ten thousand dollars in revenue. A steady stream of customers orders cardboard chairs, sofas, shelves, and tables for homes, offices, and dorm rooms. A wave of publicity hit Rotholz at the end of November, when he was featured on Connecticut’s WFSB Channel 3 Eyewitness News. CNN also broadcast the two-minute clip. Overnight, Rotholz’s Web site received fifteen thousand hits. E-mails poured in. Some people wanted to order furniture; others attached images of their own ideas for cardboard innovation.

Rotholz has received several requests to complete big projects. The first one he’s accepted is to design an entire office’s worth of furniture for a tech startup located in downtown New Haven. He claims that the furniture he sells suits the “urban nomad” way of life, because it is conveniently light and quick to assemble, recyclable, and easy to personalize.

Rotholz is ambivalent about his success. “A lot of people are saying ‘Go Zach!’ I feel like people are rooting for me more than I’m rooting for myself,” he said. “It’s a kind of weird cognitive dissonance. People are saying good job, but I feel like I’m not doing much. I wouldn’t rather be doing anything else, so I really have nothing to complain about. But I’m stuck in a rut right now.”

Appearing on national television isn’t a source of pride for Rotholz. He says he’s uncertain about whether he deserves all the publicity he’s getting. The notoriety was so easy to achieve, he says, that it disturbs him. “It feels like a big balloon, you know? It’s so empty.”

Rotholz thinks of his store as a place to meet new people and exchange ideas, a kind of “social experiment,” he said, but not as a permanent home for his talent. Initially, he wanted to see if people would buy his cardboard designs and to change the way some people think about furniture and environmentally sustainable lifestyles.

When Rotholz secured his lease for the storefront late last summer, his supporters, including vice president of New Haven and State Affairs and Campus Development Bruce Alexander ’65, expected Chairigami to expand quickly and eventually to provide jobs to members of the local community. But Rotholz is not sure he wants to expand, and he’s not sure he likes being a manager. He has not yet committed to a long-term plan. Rotholz’s lease was initially scheduled to end on September 30, and then it was extended to December 30. He doesn’t know how much longer he wants to stay in New Haven; he hasn’t decided if he wants to set up a store somewhere else, or if he just wants to run his business through his Web site. He bikes to work each day in a Charigami T-shirt, well-worn jeans, and Converse sneakers.

He also says he wants to work at his own pace. Rotholz has turned down offers from several potential investors, afraid of losing control to a “shark”—his term for a successful, experienced, fast-talking entrepreneur who might take advantage of the naïveté of someone like Rotholz. He has accepted two interns to help with manufacturing, but every few weeks, another design student who has heard of Chairigami’s success sends Rotholz a résumé, or brings in a portfolio. Still, he wants to keep things simple. No one has given Rotholz instructions, but he’s been learning how to deal with everything that goes into running a business, from lawyers to trademarks.

One of Rotholz’s “sharks” marched into the store on a Friday night in November. The businessman almost immediately suggested partnering with Chairigami on a major project. “What if I ordered five thousand dollars worth of chairs and tables right now? Would you be able to handle that capacity?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I’d do my best,” Rotholz responded.

Later, the two sat down on one of the cardboard sofas, and the businessman pulled out his iPhone to show Rotholz a picture of his newborn baby. “Wow, congratulations,” said Rotholz, genuinely but calmly.

“How much do you care about making money?” asked the entrepreneur.

Rotholz shrugged and shook his head. “Not much.” They shook hands and promised to further discuss project details soon.

“I hate charging people money,” Rotholz told me. “I never know if I’m overcharging or undercharging. I wish I could just use a bartering system. Like, ‘I’ll make you this, and you can make me food.’ ”

Many more people visit Chairigami as friends than as customers. Strangers drop by to give moral support. Local musicians leave handwritten “business cards” with him and tell him to check out their Web sites. A man Rotholz suspected to be schizophrenic walked into the store just because he was lonely and needed someone to talk to.

Rotholz speaks readily with these visitors without betraying any desire to impress. People are very generous with their kind words and advice, he said. Often, because they share so much of their lives and ideas with him, he is inspired to design new things that people want—an iPad stand, a toddler’s chair, a beer pong table.

Sometimes visitors challenge him, but at this point, Rotholz doesn’t feel the need to persuade people to accept his concepts or his designs.

“Kind of a fire hazard, huh?” a man suggested.

“Just as much of one as the library across the street,” Rotholz replied.

“The products should be able to speak for themselves,” he said to me. “Personally, I’m not attached to the objects I make. I’m attached to the process. Since I’m never really satisfied, never truly proud of anything I make, I’m not so attached to the final product. I don’t linger.”

Rotholz has memorized most of his designs; he doesn’t usually need to consult his notes for measurements and procedures. He folds and cuts the cardboard without hesitation or the aid of a ruler, drawing the blade through the material in swift and steady slices. “After I designed my first chair, everything was somehow derived from that,” he said.

If Rotholz could spend all his time making furniture, he would be happy. He says he would much rather work as a member of a team, manufacturing all day, than manage the whole operation. It’s really hard to be your own boss, he says. “Marketing is really weird. You have to create the need, create the problem,” he said. “I want to solve problems.”

As a child, Rotholz’s Lego creations never lasted for more than a few moments. After building something, he’d quickly take it apart to start on something new. He wouldn’t linger on his products then, and he doesn’t linger on his cardboard creations now. But Rotholz says his mother recently reminded him that Chairigami has real promise, and the company is worth sustaining and developing. Rotholz’s challenge now is not innovation or persuasion. What he needs is the conviction to stick to Chairigami.

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