Once upon a time, Odopod Strategist Dan Goldstein transformed some cardboard into a minimalist recliner — the Re-Ply Chair. After optimization and crowdsourcing, it found its way into homes around the world. Here, Dan shares how that happened.
What is the Re-Ply Chair and how did you conceive it?
As an architect, I’ve always been fascinated with materials. The concept for the chair came from a simple piece of folded paper. Paper is strong in tension (if you pull on it), but weak in compression (if you push two ends together). The idea was to create a shape that puts the paper in tension, thereby taking advantage of its strength.
Starting with these papery origins, I scaled up to cardboard. The Re-Ply Chair is an upcycled cardboard chair. Other cardboard furniture either uses stacked cardboard of many layers, or is based in origami (folding) or box forms. The shell of the Re-Ply is made from laminating four layers of cardboard over a curved mold, creating a structural shell. This is very similar to what Ray and Charles Eames did when they started molding plywood in their chairs, but surprisingly nobody had ever done this with cardboard furniture. The result is super strong and durable. It makes us re-think what cardboard can be.
Why cardboard? Can you talk about the materials you explored?
Cardboard is certainly an underrated material. High quality cardboard wears well (not the soft type often used in packaging), can last for decades, and develops a beautiful leather-like patina over time. But because we primarily see cardboard in packing boxes, we almost exclusively think of it as something destined for the recycle bin.
If we want to live more sustainably, we have to change the way we think of the materials we are putting into our waste stream, and this is where the Re-Ply is most successful. People who see the chair for the first time have a moment where they suddenly understand, “This everyday material is actually pretty badass. It has way more potential than we give it.”
The steel base serves to frame the cardboard and signal its permanence. Steel is actually a fairly sustainable material — even “new” steel is 85% recycled. And it can easily be recycled again. The felt washers and pads were chosen because they are compostable. The entire chair was designed to be super sustainable, so that it can be almost completely recycled.
When did you realize you were onto something?
I made several prototypes of the chair about 10 years ago, and they sat in my living room. Visitors would tell me how much they liked them, or ask where I bought them. Over time, this was the indicator that maybe I should do something with them. I guess I was unintentionally doing user validation testing in my living room.
How did it grow from a single chair to a sizeable project?
At the time, I didn’t know much about scaling. I spoke with people in lots of manufacturing industries about how they might manufacture the different parts, and what the costs would be.
The cardboard shell uses a unique manufacturing process I developed, so it’s not like I can just go to a typical manufacturer and say “500 of these, please!” As such, I ended up doing the molding myself — not really scalable. The other parts of the chair, including the metal frame, use pre-existing manufacturing processes. The metal base is made with the same techniques used to make shopping carts, for example.
If I had known what I know now about scaling, things would be different. Either the project would have grown even larger, or I would have been too intimidated to launch it. It’s been an amazing education into how goods move from ideas to store shelves.
How did you approach funding?
I had some peers who had used or were about to use Kickstarter, so that was part of my motivation to launch the project on Kickstarter too. As funds grew, so did interest on social media. Then came Fast Company’s design story on the Re-Ply. All of this resulted in a collective boost in interest. (It was later published in a bunch of international design magazines too!)
From a design standpoint, what was particularly challenging?
The idea for the chair shell came along early on. More challenging was landing it. I handbuilt about 12 full-scale bases before being satisfied. I started with cardboard, moved to wood, and learned some basic welding as I moved to steel rod. The end result is quite elegant I think. It references many of the angles of the cardboard shell, and allows a single pair of bolts to attach the chair to the base, hold the crease of the chair in place, and allow it to rock — all in one move. Creating something elegant like this is really satisfying to me.
Any future design plans in the works — furniture or otherwise?
Though I’m a strategist here at Odopod, I have a lot of designer in me. Since the Re-Ply Chair, I’ve built some tensegrity stools and lighting fixtures. While I plan to continue designing for the physical environment in my spare time, I don’t have any launches in the near future, but who knows?
Thanks, Dan. You’ve given new meaning to “thinking outside the box.”