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Crazy for Cardboard: Young Entrepreneur Designs Affordable Standing Desks

By:  Anna Raddatz Jul 28, 2014
standing desk

Zachary Rotholz is the 25-year-old founder of Chairigami, a business that designs and produces cardboard furniture 'for the urban nomad.' While his regular product line includes chairs, sofas, tables and shelving, he realized cardboard would also be the perfect material for building affordable standing desks that could sell for under $100.

Standing desks are big news lately. The craze began around 2012 when the media started reporting on a few scientific papers concluding that people who regularly sit for long periods of time — say, at an office desk — may experience more health troubles and shorter life spans.

Furniture makers quickly jumped on the bandwagon, offering models of adjustable desks that can be raised to standing height. Some even come complete with treadmills or stationary bicycles for optimum office-bound activity.

The problem is that most of these heavy, metal contraptions cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, keeping them out of reach for many health- and budget-conscious consumers.

This year, Zachary Rotholz of New Haven, Conn., decided to do something about that.

Rotholz is the founder and owner of Chairigami, a business that designs and produces cardboard furniture “for the urban nomad.” While his regular product line includes chairs, sofas, tables and shelving, the 25-year-old entrepreneur realized that cardboard would also be the perfect material for building affordable standing desks that could sell for under $100.

standing desk

Rotholz launched a Kickstarter campaign in March, doubling his goal by raising more than $50,000.

So in mid-March, he launched a Kickstarter campaign. His goal was to raise $25,000 to manufacture and ship 500 standing desks. Within two days, supporters had pledged around $18,000. By the end of the month-long campaign, 671 backers had pledged more than twice his goal, supporting his project with more than $50,000.

One of those backers, Lily Meyer, a freelance writer in New York City, had been hearing about standing desks but wasn’t sure how to attain one for her home office. “Everyone’s been talking about standing desks and saying it’s a new revolution in how we work,” she says. “I always thought that was kind of cool, and I thought maybe I’d build one or get one when I’m rich and famous.”

But when she came across Rotholz’s cardboard design on Kickstarter, she knew it would be a good fit for both her budget and her work-from-home lifestyle. The desk’s small footprint would fit in her small Manhattan apartment, and she liked that she would be able to put it together herself. Meyer also thought that the cardboard material seemed “more human” than many of the metal and wood desks out there.

“It’s inviting, not imposing,” she says.

In early June, Chairigami shipped 700 standing desks to Meyer and other backers all around the country, as far away as Alaska and Hawaii. Now the desks are available to purchase from the Chairigami website or from his storefront in downtown New Haven.

All very impressive, to be sure. But the question you may be asking yourself right about now is… why cardboard?

Cardboard’s Charm

While cardboard may strike some as an unlikely furniture-making material, Rotholz, who has a mechanical engineering degree from Yale University, loves to sing its praises.

Cardboard is not only recyclable and affordable, he explains. It's also portable and extremely strong. The corrugated cardboard he uses for most of his products is half an inch thick and as strong as plywood, but only one-fifth the weight. It’s also quick and easy to build with. “With an X-Acto knife or jigsaw, you can crank out working pieces in a couple of hours,” says Rotholz. “It allows me to iterate designs very quickly.”

Rotholz first explored cardboard’s versatility during an internship at the Adaptive Design Association, a nonprofit in New York City that designs and builds custom adaptations for children with disabilities. During his time there, Rotholz helped create a cardboard wheelchair tray for a 9-year-old girl with cerebral palsy. He worked with the child’s therapist and school teachers to build a tray that exactly fit her body and her devices.

“With cardboard, we could create very customized pieces that were inexpensive and we didn’t have to hire a company to produce them,” he says.

That customization draws customers to Chairigami. Rotholz says many of his buyers are young adults who are moving into their first apartment, or young professionals from hip workplaces. They want items in their homes and offices that can reflect their creativity. Cardboard furniture is extremely hackable; it can be painted, drawn on, taped, cut into or even tiled. In fact, speakers can be mounted inside, with the cardboard acting as a surprisingly powerful amplifier.

Meyer, the Kickstarter backer, doodles and takes notes directly on the desk surface. She also modified her desk by cutting slits for cardboard drawers (old boxes from a subscription service that she had lying around) that now hold her office supplies. She has further plans to “go Sharpie crazy” and cover the desk with marker drawings.

Chairigami has also found a larger, unexpected market in businesses that need displays for trade shows. Rotholz gets a couple of these orders a week, and refers to these customers as his “bread and butter.”

standing desk

Rotholz, who has a mechanical engineering degree from Yale University, says corrugated cardboard makes a great building material. In addition to being recyclable and affordable, it's also portable and durable.

“They want something that’s lightweight and inexpensive, easy to pack in and pack out, and that’s a conversation piece that will draw in more customers,” he says. They often order a sofa, some chairs, and shelving, and have their logo applied to the pieces for a cohesive, branded look.

For Rotholz’s part, what really grabs his imagination about cardboard is something even simpler. Every parent knows the frustration of buying a nice gift for their child, only to watch the kid play more with the box it came in. It’s a modest, unassuming material. Because of that, Rotholz calls it the “great leveler.”

“I’ve had some big-time investors come into my store,” he says. “Everyone is kind of formal, and they have their spiel.” But when a meeting takes place while everyone is sitting on cardboard furniture, it all comes down a notch. “Cardboard is very honest and transparent,” Rotholz muses, “and I think it kind of brings that out in people, too.”

Growing & Exploring

While all of Chairigami’s previous products have been designed and built solely by Rotholz, he had some help for the standing desk project. In fact, experimenting with outsourced production was one of the reasons Rotholz launched the Kickstarter campaign.

To make the standing desks, he worked with several other companies: a die-making company (which produced the rotary die, which Rotholz describes as a “huge cylinder with a cookie cutter on it”), a die-cutting company (which stamped out the cardboard pieces), and an assembly business (which packaged and shipped the completed products).

“The cool thing is that all of those people were within a 100-mile radius (of New Haven), so it’s all very, very local,” says Rotholz. Even the cardboard sheet manufacturer is nearby in Massachusetts.

The Kickstarter experience has shown Rotholz that his business can be viable and scalable. But like any designer, he’s not content to stick with one product — or even one type of product. His goals for the future include finding a mentor who can offer constructive feedback, being part of a creative community he can bounce ideas off of, and exploring roles that are less about manufacturing and more about consulting and ideation.

But what really gets him going is playing with new materials. When he’s not working on his business, he’s tinkering with other fun projects — whether it’s a spherical lamp made from ketchup cups, or a parabolic solar reflector that grills hot dogs. It’s clear that Rotholz is just at the beginning of what’s sure to be an innovative design career.

“I love to invent things and make things and design new objects,” he says. “I think experimenting with new materials is endlessly exciting.”