Design Q+A

Meet Uhuru: Design Founders Q+A

Uhuru Design's partners share how they've established themselves as one of America’s most innovative design firms.

When you sit down with Jason Horvath and Bill Hilgendorf, the partners behind Uhuru Design, it doesn’t take long for the stories to start flowing. Jason and Bill rented garage space in Brooklyn about 14 years ago, and since then, Uhuru has established itself as one of America’s most innovative design firms. Uhuru’s influence on “New American Design” provides for an interesting conversation about the maker movement.


Reclaim. Repurpose. Reimagine.

Discover how Uhuru creates furniture that merges the avant-garde with the sustainable.

EXPLORE UHURU


360: How did Uhuru begin? 

Bill Hilgendorf: Jason and I studied industrial design together at Rhode Island School of Design, and we both immediately moved to New York after graduation. Jason worked for an interior design firm, and I built furniture for a cabinet maker. Pretty soon, we realized we missed the facilities we’d had at school to build stuff. We needed a shop where we could bring our ideas to life. So, we convinced a couple of friends to go in with us on garage space on the ground floor of the building I was living in (at the end of 2003-2004 in Red Hook, Brooklyn).

Around the same time, a friend’s friend gave us all these tools she needed to clear out of a loft in SoHo. They had been in storage for almost 15 years, but it was a whole woodshop of tools. That was our original capital because we didn’t have money. It was just one of those serendipitous things about New York, and it was the beginning.

360: Red Hook is a tucked-away corner of Brooklyn. What has it meant to you?

Jason Horvath: Like a lot of people, we’re not from New York. But we’ve made New York home. It’s become clear our company has been inspired by everything around us. Our shop is literally on the waterfront. The Statue of Liberty is there. There are water taxis, cargo boats, and ferries. It’s a very unique part of New York on the water. I think our design is reflected in the unique collision of the waterfront, Red Hook and, then, all of New York around it. Bill talks about the effects of nature on how materials age over time. It’s something we see constantly. Materials wash up in our backyard all the time. We have a bench in the shop right now that just came out of the water a couple of weeks ago. It remains a really important part of our story and as we grow we want to make sure we remain from Red Hook.

Uhuru Designs

Uhuru’s custom tables draw on a minimalist, residential aesthetic to create a dynamic, unique statement in any space.

Uhuru Designs

The Cyclone Lounger is inspired by Coney Island’s famous Cyclone coaster. It was originally crafted from reclaimed wood salvaged from the original iconic boardwalk.

Uhuru Designs

The Bilge Lounge Chair is made from reclaimed bourbon barrel staves from Kentucky and recycled leaf springs from New York City fire trucks.

Uhuru Designs

Uhuru conference tables are built from sustainably harvested American hardwoods and are fabricated from recycled steel.

360: How do those found materials start manifesting themselves in your work?

BH: Our first collection was a combination of custom jobs we liked, and pieces inspired by materials we found on the streets and in dumpsters. Another amazing thing about New York is the spaces are so in demand and expensive that people are always parting with good stuff. So that first collection was made of things we found in dumpsters and buildings: beams of reclaimed lumber and iron fencing and all kinds of different pieces. Then, we started thinking “how can we build on that?”

JH: People loved that first collection and wanted more. But, it was like that sophomore album problem. How could we repeat that success without the same materials? What we realized is people loved the stories behind those materials. So the “narrative design” idea became something we always went back to. Collection after collection, we’d start off by finding interesting materials to build with, whether it was Coney Island boardwalk planks or bourbon barrels from Kentucky (I’m actually from Kentucky). About once a year, we would design a new collection based on interesting materials we were able to find. We stayed tried and true to that model for quite a few years.

BH: Once we did that a couple of times, people got to know us as “the guys who like to use storied materials.” So people would reach out to us and say “Hey, I’ve got this battleship teak” or “this crazy wood that came out of a building 200 years ago.” Eventually, we asked ourselves how we can scale this in a way that isn’t dependent on limited collections or a crazy guy with a truck full of battleship teak. How do we create something repeatable? That’s when we started thinking about the work really being inspired by the narrative behind a process or a material. That’s when we moved into designs like the Fold Collection which comes from looking at old pallet straps. So, we shifted into a place where we could be inspired by a found object or reclaimed material, but the actual design pieces are repeatable.

Uhuru Behind the Scenes

Uhuru Behind the Scenes

Uhuru Behind the Scenes

360: With that in mind, how do you stay true to your “maker” roots as you grow? How do you make sure that “craft” remains at the center of your work?

JH: Craft is the thing that lets us continually elevate our product even as we start towards more mass-produced pieces. We were just in our Pennsylvania studio/factory last week, and we talked about the fact that there remains this culture of craft there. Where people still have a real passion for making things even if they’re making them at a higher volume. That’s something we care deeply about and something we need to keep.

BH: Something I loved in school was manufacturing techniques and understanding the processes of making. So, as long as we keep an appreciation for how things are made – no matter the quantity – and having a passion for new technologies, processes, efficiencies, and understanding, then we’ll be okay.

360: After all these years, what is the wildest thing you guys have built?

JH: For an artist, Dan Colen, we broke NBA backboards – like 50 of them. And then we glued them back together to make a bunch of art fabrications. The greatest furniture project we ever did was our first big hotel project. We created about 4,000 pieces of furniture. We had never done anything near that scale. We got together when we first received the bid request and said, “Can we do this?” “Yeah, we should probably try.” It was definitely the scariest thing anyone ever asked us to build. But we did, and it came out tremendously. Now that’s a big part of what we do and we learned so much. Usually, when we get challenged, we grow a lot as a company.


Reclaim. Repurpose. Reimagine.

Discover how Uhuru creates furniture that merges the avant-garde with the sustainable.

EXPLORE UHURU


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