Studio Visit
Uhuru, Furniture Designers

If you were familiar only with Uhuru’s work, it would be enough to surmise that the Brooklyn-based furniture designers are experts at creating something beautiful from practically nothing. (The formal term for this, we’re told, is up-cycling.) In the half-decade since RISD grads Jason Horvath and Bill Hilgendorf have been designing their own line, they’ve produced chairs from Kentucky bourbon barrels, loungers from the Ipe wood planks of a demolished Coney Island boardwalk, and scrapwood stools so stylish they were recently picked to decorate the café at New York’s SANAA-designed New Museum.

But while it’s true Uhuru are a resourceful bunch, step into their sprawling Red Hook studio and any assumptions you might have about their bootstraps process all but disappear. The 10,000-square-foot workshop is more like a complex, consisting of three or four buildings haphazardly connected and owned since the 1940s by the international fix-it company Golten Marine, which services massive engine blocks for container ships from its factory space beneath Uhuru’s. Upstairs, the place was practically empty when Horvath and Hilgendorf moved in in 2005, and their team built it up from scratch — installing the wiring and machinery, cobbling together the most impressive supply chest this side of the Hudson, and with their latest project, turning the factory’s former commissary into a street-level showroom and event space. “When we first got here, it was way too much room for us,” says Horvath. “But we’ve been growing into it ever since.”

Besides the sheer luck involved in finding real estate on that scale in New York City, he and Hilgendorf originally had an ulterior motive for investing in the massive space. “We actually originally had a third business partner who had this crazy idea to do a reality show with MTV where we would design and build a dance club. We figured if we were going to build this thing, we’d better have a bigger place. At the time, we were working with several other people from RISD in 1,000 square feet at the back of some girl’s loft.” Of the show, he says: “They actually ended up filming two or three episodes — but the video has never surfaced.”

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Uhuru sublets part of its space to other design concerns, but it's still the building’s main tenant, and stepping onto the shop floor is like entering a Richard Scarry universe buzzing with seemingly choreographed activity. There are typically around 12 to 15 people on the shop floor at once, working simultaneously on as many as 20 or 30 jobs.

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After RISD, Horvath and Hilgendorf knew they wanted to open a shop, but they were both working day jobs — Horvath with an interior-design firm and Hilgendorf with a cabinetmaker — until one day, fate intervened. “A friend of mine’s dad used to build models for the artist Christo, and he had this whole shop in storage,” Horvath explains. “These tools had just been sitting there for years, and his ex-wife wanted them out of her loft.” The booty included this green bandsaw, one of the last remaining survivors from the inheritance.

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Horvath jokingly calls Hilgendorf a hoarder, but those gathering instincts come in handy for a firm that’s made its name using almost exclusively reclaimed materials. The studio members still pick things up off the street, but over the years they've developed a network of architect and developer contacts who phone when a building is being demolished or renovated. These beams, for example, came from a razed building in downtown Brooklyn. "We're constantly getting calls that there’s a Dumpster full of wood somewhere in Brooklyn," says Horvath.

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Uhuru also works with the kind of small mills that provide interesting, hard-to-find woods to the likes of Nakashima’s studio. Much of Uhuru’s custom work involves creating freeform wood-slab dining tables, coffee tables, and beds for interior-design clients, and that locally milled wood comes from sustainably harvested trees or those naturally felled by storms or cut for disease. “We try, whenever we can, to buy flitches, which is what it’s called when you have the sequential slabs from a trunk in order,” Hilgendorf explains.

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They also use those mills to score specialty items for Uhuru Productions, a recently launched arm of the company run by designer Maria Cristina Rueda, which focuses on event production and fabrication for artists. The big leaf-maple burl on the left and the slab on the right, for example, are part of an art piece Uhuru is working on for the artist Dan Colen, who graduated a year ahead of them at RISD.

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“We’ve worked on many pieces for Dan over the years,” says Hilgendorf. “The first was Secrets and Cymbals, Smoke and Scissors (My Friend Dash's Wall in the Future) in 2004, and this past year we started doing a lot of work on his shattered NBA backboards for Gagosian.” (above)

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Scraps for Stoolen, one of Uhuru’s most popular pieces and also the first thing they ever designed. “Our first collection, which we launched at Brooklyn Designs in 2006, was based on this piece,” says Horvath. “From there, we decided to really go with this idea of sustainability and reclaimed materials, which was really the focus when we first started getting attention. Now I think attention is slowly shifting more to the design side.”

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For the New Museum’s Birdbath café, which debuted last month, Uhuru provided 18 Stoolens complete with a tiny silhouette of the SANAA-designed building milled into each piece.

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In the beginning, Uhuru designed mostly with a form in mind and then foraged for an appropriate fabrication material. In 2008, says Horvath, “we began casting around for more interesting materials that could inform our process.” Horvath, who hails from Louisville, Kentucky, had a friend in the bourbon business who offered them his distillery connections, and the Küpe line of chairs was born.

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Uhuru is still made up of RISD grads primarily, but as the studio has grown, hires have taken on more specificity. “We just got a new mega-welder,” exclaims Hilgendorf proudly. This is his purview.

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Uhuru is best known for high-profile collections like the Coney Island line. But while those collections earn most of the press, they’re not what affords the studio a 10,000-square-foot HQ. Everything Uhuru sells is built by hand to order, so much of the work they do is custom — even if it’s simply adding an inch or two to an existing piece. The studio also works on major commissions for companies like Gensler, Grey, and Marriott, whose new Third Avenue hotel will soon feature this piece.

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Another custom piece: A rooftop grill cabinet for an interior design project. The studio is also currently working on furniture destined for Tommy Lee Jones’s apartment in the upcoming Men in Black 3.

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Once in a while, Uhuru's small custom-designed pieces end up in one of their New York Design Week collection debuts. This ebonized walnut media unit, made from a single slab of wood held together with metal plates, may be a 2011 addition, though the studio is also contemplating a line of outdoor furniture.

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Tools of the trade...

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...include hardware leftover from the Christo haul.

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Up a set of rickety metal stairs is Uhuru’s former office, now used as studio space by a few of the guys in the shop.

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The team recently relocated to a larger office one floor down, where their Standard chair is displayed on the wall. The chair backs were rescued from Build It Green, an architectural salvage yard in Astoria, Queens, that Hilgendorf calls “the TJ Maxx of furniture. There are always all these reproductions and unfinished pieces just sitting in boxes.” Uhuru recently took a team trip to the facility to source raw material for its first exhibition — an employee showcase — in the renovated showroom downstairs. Everyone had $50 to spend on whatever they wanted; Rueda picked up jugs for a DIY chandelier while Hilgendorf scored two marble tabletops from New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel.

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On the origins of the company name, Horvath says its most famous reference is the Uhuru Peak at Mount Kilamanjaro. But a more personal reference is a reggae band called Black Uhuru. “When Bill was in college, we called him Rasta Bill,” Horvath jokes. “He had white-man dreadlocks down to his butt.” “We also liked the way it looked graphically,” Hilgendorf points out.

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On my way out of the studio, Hilgendorf and Rueda offered me a peek at Golten’s facilities downstairs. “The scale of things down here is amazing,” Hilgendorf says. “The engine blocks are like 20 feet long.” Shown here are enormous wrenches for bolting together engine parts.

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Equally massive lathe plates for milling crank shafts. “They used to occupy the whole building, but they have like 30 locations around the world and labor’s cheaper in other parts,” Hilgendorf says. “But this is the original location.”

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A machine for boring engine-block cylinders.

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Rueda, who also creates the studio’s graphics, professes her love for Golten’s nut-shaped logo and timeless typography. When finished, the Uhuru showroom and event space will be behind the green grate, which the designers intend to paint their signature black.

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The other exterior markers for their studio are the massive Red Hook lights that have worked intermittently since before the team moved in 6 years ago. “A guy from the neighborhood comes in and fixes it himself, but no one's really sure where it came from originally,” Rueda notes.