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From computer to cardboard, local company's holiday trees designed with flair

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, even if it’s shrink-wrapped and flat packed with some assembly required.

Cardboard Safari — the Charlottesville-based company that brought to market computer-generated, laser-cut cardboard three-dimensional trophy heads, skulls and other designs — is getting deep into the holiday cheer with pre-cut cardboard holiday trees.

Red, white or natural cardboard ready for customer customization, the trees are available at the company’s website, Other colors are available for custom order, including a tree made with kaleidoscope paper, fresh from a 1950s living room when white-needled metal trees with changing-color carousels were the rage.

“That’s called mid-century modern and I always liked it, but it’s hard to find the proper use for it,” said Chris Jesse, the company president and part of the creative team. “We made a prototype tree with it and it looks great.”

You can even get the trees made with slots in the leaves to display holiday cards.

“My family gets a lot of Christmas cards — I mean a lot,” said Michael Tucker, one of the company’s computer-savvy creative designers. “These are great because you can just slide the card into the leaf and it holds it firm and you can have a tree full of cards.”

The holiday tree concept isn’t new for the company, but the design is fresh off the computer.

“We made trees one year for Urban Outfitters in the U.K. and they sold a ton of them, but they decided not to sell them the next year,” Jesse said.

“It’s been in my head for a while that we should come back around and do another tree, a better tree,” he said. “I just thought we could do something more with it. Creating and designing is an important part of what we do and who we are as a company, and this gave us a chance to get more creative with it.”

Creativity is the company’s forte, from laser-cut trophy heads like Robbie the Rhino and Stewart the Bear to laser-cut and snap-to-fit wood waste baskets. The company’s existence can be credited to Robbie, Stewart and Fred the Moose, the cardboard trophy heads that were its first products.

“We started doing trophy heads years ago but the product line is now getting heavily knocked off by companies in China and Eastern Europe,” Jesse said. “When we started the company, we looked at how long [the trophy head market] would last and we figured about three years at tops. But here we are 12 years later and it’s still going on.”

Shortly after the company started up, Jesse said a client recommended he take the wall heads to a trade show in New York.

“I took a deer, moose and rhino head with me up there and in a just a day or two, I had a $25,000 check and a contract,” he said. “We made wreaths for Macy’s Department Stores one year, holiday trees for Urban Outfitters and another year we made a unicorn trophy head.”

The single-horn horse head was a one-time gift for the retailer, but Cardboard Safari got the go-ahead to keep up production.

“We asked if we could continue making them and they said sure. Now it’s a big seller,” Jesse said. “We’ve done it in pink, purple, rainbows and all sorts of colors. It’s a big seller.”

But the knockoffs left a mark on the balance sheet.

“We were going pretty strong with the trophy heads until a few years ago. We decided we could either spend a lot of money fighting those guys or do something else. We decided to do something else,” Jesse said.

Using computer design tools, laser cutters, etchers and printers, creative designers schooled in architecture and other disciplines branched out into other products and the company became a contractor for local businesses.

Cardboard Safari was the original contractor for the game pieces in Chick-a-Pig, a locally devised board game. The company produces everything from signs to coasters and clocks.

“We do more and more promotional items. We’re doing some for Nest Realty, WNRN, and we do a lot of production and fabrication for local companies and some that are not so local,” Jesse said. “Our goal is to do more and more of that sort of work.”

Creativity, however, remains job one. That’s why they returned to the trees.

Using two different computer programs, Tucker was able to do dozens of redesigns of leaves, latches and support systems without having to build dozens of prototypes.

“You can change the design to see how it looks, how to build it and then, when you get the right design you think is worth creating, you make a test run,” Tucker said. “Sometimes it works great. Sometimes it doesn’t look as good in cardboard as it does on the computer. [But the computer] still takes a lot of trial and error out of the system.”

The company decided on three tree heights, a 16-inch for desktops, a 28-inch for tables or floors and a 6.5-footer for those who want a tree’s tree.

“We worked on a lot of sizes, trying to see which scale would look the best,” Jesse said. “It took a few tries to get the right height to give the trees the right proportion. It was actually a lot of fun and we think they look pretty festive. ”


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