An itinerant minister from Minnesota needed a light-weight fold-up altar. A deejay was looking for a portable stand for wedding sign-ins. A very pregnant Karla Berman was thinking about furniture for her baby-to-be. They all found their ways to the newest pop-up store in New Haven: folding, recycle-cardboard furniture for what young entrepreneur Zachary Rotholtz called the “urban nomad.”
Rotholtz’s Chairigami store just opened at 286 York St. in the heart of the Yale business district.
The store is appealing to more than just students.
The tables, chairs, and bookcases all sell in the $50 to $100 range. Rotholtz assembles them with little more than his ingenuity and the handle of a paint brush used for scoring the recycled cardboard in just the right places for folding and construction.
Rotholz said he’s dealt with about 50 customers since his opening and snagged 32 sales thus far.
Many of Rotholz’s customers saunter by on their way to and from Ashley’s ice cream and other stores on York. They look, they wonder what the stuff is, and then they return.
Karla Berman said she walked by once on the way to the gym to exercise. (Her baby is due on Friday.) “I sort of thought it was joke,” she said.
When she walked out she pronounced the items very cool. She left to go to the gym, but not before asking Rotholz if he would ship to Mexico, where she lives. He said he never had, but he would. He gave her his card.
Rotholz graduated from Yale with a degree in mechanical engineering in June. He could have gone on to a “normal” job, he said. He comes from a retailing family in his native Chicago; he sensed he wanted to do work that somehow was connected with the Lego-mania of his childhood.
He built his senior thesis on the previous summer’s experience working for Adaptive Design, Inc in New York City.
“They build equipment for disabled children without money,” he said. The key is doing it with triple-walled cardboard. “It’s easy to work with, without power tools, very forgiving,” and it costs less than wood or metal.
There he built a wheelchair tray for a girl with cerebral palsy. “I needed to have had on its sides two fun peep-holes for her sister to look at her. It had to be just the right height and of material, like cardboard, where the little girl wouldn’t chafe her arms,” he said.
“I learned the craft of cardboard carpentry and fell in love with creating furniture,” to fulfill real needs, he said.
His senior thesis turned out to be building a chair, table, and bookshelf out of a single sheet of four by eight corrugated cardboard.
This summer, at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute ,mentors helped him add products and demystified the process of starting a business. The institute brought in speakers. One was Yale Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs Bruce Alexander.
Rotholz made his presentation about Chairigami. Alexander was impressed enough with Rotholz to invite him to utilize the 286 York St. commercial space.
He’s paying Yale rent, Rotholz said, but has a generous arrangement for the first 45 days. After that Rotholz needs to decide if he’s selling enough to keep on renting or if he needs to move. Project Storefronts is also wooing Chairigami with an offer of the empty space on College Street across from Coop High.
All those creative students might be a natural audience. Or should he develop the business online using only the Chairigami website he developed?
He’s gathering intelligence, Rotholz said. What’s he’s learned from customers thus far is that people like to hear his story. They also want to know that the light-weightness is not sacrificing durability.
Berman asked how long the chair she was sitting on would last. “I’ve had these two for six months,” he said.
People also ask if the surfaces are paintable. “It’s your canvas,” as he put it, and there’s fun in the easy putting together and unfolding.
Then again there’s sustainability. “The idea is to rethink contemporary furniture. Ikea things end up in the Dumpster,” he said as a new customer walked in the store.
Rotholtz’s long-term idea is to have not only his store that makes the furniture but a place that recycles the used items, and creates out of them new sheets of corrugated cardboard out of which to make new furniture. A complete cycle, and ideally in one setting so there’s not much transportation and resultant pollution.
That’s way down the road. Right now he’s pursuing new product ideas that have come from his first week’s customers. They include a bed, a music stand, and, of course, a beer pong table for those students.
Sue Nichols, a printmaker from Guilford, was thrilled with the standing desk. She could easily move it around her small studio, she said, and who cares what kind of ink gets on it?
“My only concern is my rabbit,” she told Rotholz. Her rabbit lives in her studio. She had some question as to whether the rabbit would eat Rotholz’s desk.
“Maybe I’ll get a little chair for him to chew on,” she said. Then she took his card and said, “We’ll definitely be back.”