For Bill Hilgendorf and Jason Horvath, building their multifaceted furniture and interior design company, Uhuru Design, has come down to this mantra: slow and steady wins the race. “We’ve done this for over ten years. We made a lot of mistakes, and luckily we made them when we were small. Well, not all of them. We’re still making mistakes, but the idea is you learn as you grow,” says Jason.
After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design for industrial design in 2002, Bill and Jason both found themselves in New York faced with the same problem: space to make and build things. “We got this space with three other people and we literally split the rent among five of us,” says Jason. Bill adds, “That was kind of the impetus for Uhuru. We just wanted a space to make things.”
In the 12 years since, Uhuru has grown from creating custom furniture for friends and Craigslist clients, to designing and managing large-scale interior projects for the likes of the Ace Hotel, Vice Media, the New Museum, and Shake Shack. They’ve had pieces inducted into the permanent collections of the Smithsonian and the Brooklyn Museum, and have collaborated with artists like Maya Lin and Dan Colen. They’ve set up international production in Vietnam, and recently leased a 6 acre farm in Pennsylvania to build a 45,000 square foot facility for domestic production. Last year, they expanded into an 8,000 square foot space in Red Hook that’s half bustling office, half active workshop, and are opening their first consumer-facing showroom in Tribeca this spring.
“It’s been really amazing to see our expansion in terms of people and what’s happening. When it was just the two of us, we knew about everything that was going on and every part of the business, and now, there’s actually specialized people who handle all those things,” says Bill. Not too shabby for a couple of guys who started out just “wanting to make things.”
WORDS BY & PHOTOS BY MIA SAKAI | PRODUCT SHOTS COURTESY OF UHURU
How did Uhuru start?
Jason: We spent the first six months in New York hanging out, drinking cheap beer, and talking about the fact that we didn’t have a space to make things. You leave a place like RISD where you literally have everything at your disposal. Then you get here and you’re in this shitty apartment with six other people and you’re trying to figure out how to make things. So the birth of our business was like, “Let’s find a space to make things!” The first space was 1,000 square feet that we shared with three other people. I think we paid $300 bucks a piece per month.
Bill: We got some tools from someone’s dad that had been in storage for like 15 years. We got some friends to commission dining tables; we did some furniture for this juice bar in the Lower East Side. We made whatever we could, whatever anyone would pay us to make.
Did you have any prior experience running a business before Uhuru?
B: I met this guy on the ground floor of my apartment building. He had a wood shop, was a little bit older, and had just started out on his own. I ended up being his first employee and worked with him for a year building furniture, but also learning about business and how you deal with clients, billing, and customer service. He was very open. I saw everything that was going on. I think that helped me get a sense of how a custom furniture business could work.
J: It’s kind of like parallel stories happening. I was working part-time at an interior architecture firm doing AutoCAD designs. I learned the other side to what Bill was learning — dealing with clients on the other end, doing drawings, pricing things out — whereas Bill was making the end product of those designs. We sort of had this complete package.
What are the three phases of your design process?
It starts with the material and the imagining. We like finding a material with a story, and then digging into that story and designing a collection around the history of that material.
The second phase is getting it on paper and starting to draw. We’ll sit down and put pen to paper and work through our ideas. Then we’ll go into three dimensional modeling and prototyping.
The third phase is making it a reality.
Your first line of furniture debuted at the Brooklyn Designs show in 2006. How did that change your company and brand reputation?
B: It was the first time we put work out into the public. Before that it was only shown to a very limited group of architects, interior designers, and friends.
J: It hit at a perfect time. There are certain serendipitous moments in business when you’re like, damn, this is exactly how things should be. At the time, Brooklyn Designs was a small furniture tradeshow that catered to makers. This was at the beginning of the Brooklyn maker movement. It was good timing for us because all of a sudden the international design community was like, “Who are these people in Brooklyn making things?” That show was the complete turning point in the company because we got press and people were really responsive to what we were doing.
B: After we launched the first line, we just kept launching new lines once a year.
Sounds like a pivotal point. How were you able to capitalize upon it and grow the company?
B: I put up a website right away, but mostly it was a lot of talking and word-of-mouth. We’d go to every networking event and just talk to people.
J: A lot of leads generated from that show and from our website. We hit the ground and tried to do everything we could think of. We’d go to architecture firms and studios and talk about what we do. Then in 2008-2009, shit got real for everybody. We retracted 30% of sales. If you can figure out ways to get more of your market share in any bad economic situation, then you can succeed. We learned about business because of what was happening to us.
B: We were lucky because we were pretty nimble and flexible. There’s always some sector of the market that needs stuff made. We moved back into taking on some really customized built-in stuff. We took projects to keep the wheels turning even though we weren’t really making money.
Your first line of furniture set a precedent for using unusual, reclaimed materials. Was making sustainable furniture a conscious decision?
B: Because we didn’t start with any cash, we didn’t have extra money to buy materials. So we used cut-offs from other jobs and stuff we found on the street. I think both of us were inspired by looking at those materials and trying to figure out how we could repurpose them.
J: We love the ideals behind reuse, but there was a pragmatic reason for it as well. We were on trend with reclaimed materials only because that was literally what we could afford. We’d go out on the street and be like, construction beams, boom! Piles of reclaimed fence, boom! We took all that stuff and made a collection of ten pieces. When we showed it, people were like, “Whoa, this is super contemporary modern stuff out of like, junk.”
As your business and production have grown, have you been able to stay committed to reclaimed and reused materials?
J: A lot of what we use is sustainably harvested wood, but we still use reclaimed stuff when we can. One of the things we look for are reclaimed materials that are available in high quantities. There are always barns falling down in Pennsylvania that you can buy, or some building getting ripped down somewhere. And you just start looking farther and farther. Someone recently contacted us about these hunting cabins that are collapsing in Ukraine.
B: When we started designing with reused materials, we got a name for being “those guys who like to use interesting materials.” People started to contact us. It seems to be an ongoing thing. Someone just wrote to us about collaborating on these slabs of concrete from the Berlin wall.
UHURU: A TIMELINE
After being in business for nine years, you brought on your first investor. What made you decide it was the right time?
B: We were getting inquiries for larger production jobs, like contract furniture for hotels and offices. It was bigger than our capacity. There was all this opportunity but we didn’t have the ability to get the wheels in motion; we realized that we needed to bring in money.
J: I’ll give you an example: Aloft Hotels wanted to order 150 of this bench that was $2500 a piece, but they wanted to pay like $350 each. We didn’t know how to do that. At that same time we brought in a third partner, Daniel Husserl, whose business is sustainable consulting, and he helped us with international expansion. His analytical nature was an element that was missing in our creativity. We spent a few years hitting a glass ceiling around the $1 million mark in sales, but we couldn’t figure out how to push past it. We wanted to grow, but we wanted to do it in a responsible way; we wanted to keep the elements that we have in tact.
How has having an investor and growth capital changed Uhuru?
J: Looking back on it, it’s been all the difference. We’re doing things now that we couldn’t have imagined doing before. We started making marketing plans, we rebuilt our website, we hired a bunch of people, we moved. Our sales went from $2 to $4 million last year and we’re expecting $10 million this year. It’s become a real company. We’ve seen such an explosive amount of growth. We were ready to pop, but prior to a couple years ago, I never even thought someone would want to buy Uhuru, or that it actually had a value.
B: It takes time to build a real brand; that’s something that’s been created over the last 11 years. It’s something that gets built. It’s not just a bunch of things happening at once. We’re at an interesting point because we’re doing so many different things and trying to define what our overall design strategy is along with our strategy for building the company.
How much does partnership play a role? Do you think you could have grown the business to this point on your own?
Both: Definitely not. Absolutely not.
B: I think we were lucky in the sense that we balance each other out. I’m much more conservative and concerned about how much money we have in the account, and if things are working. Jason’s much more the risk-taker. He’s good at talking to people and convincing them to buy whatever he’s selling. I think with that push and pull we’ve been able to navigate through a lot of tough decisions and hard times and get to the point where we felt ready to take on what we’ve taken on.
J: It would be so hard. There are such hard days, such hard decisions. If I didn’t have someone to talk to about it, I don’t know how I’d do it. I see people do it, but I’m not that kind of person. I need a tribe. There are a lot of decisions to make. I think if you did it by yourself, you’d have to have a really good advisor or team of advisors from the start.
Any advice for aspiring furniture designers and makers?
J: Dream big because the furniture industry is ripe for change; it needs it so badly. It’s an old guard. There’s so much room in the furniture industry. All these old companies are going out of business because they couldn’t deal with everything moving to China. They tried to move to China and then realized it was a mistake and lost their customer base. The industry needs change. So thinking big and thinking you can actually affect a change in the industry is my advice. Then figure out how to do it.
B: Something that’s been important over the years has been maintaining this entrepreneurial spirit. It’s been critical in keeping us going and moving forward when the course changes. You have to move with the flow and learn as you go. The business part is exciting. If it’s not exciting to you, I don’t think you can maintain.
More on Uhuru
Uhuru. “Uhuru Design: 10 Years of Craft.” www.vimeo.com. Undated.
Lee, Patty. “Uhuru Design Turned Coney Island Boardwalk Planks Into a Rollercoaster Chair.” www.6sqft.com. May 8, 2014.
Bartolacci, James. “Bourbon barrels, Battleships, And The Coney Island Boardwalk: How Furniture Brand Uhuru Finds Its Unusual Materials.” www.architizer.com. December 18, 2013.
Heiderstadt, Donna. “Alumni Q&A: Bill Hilgendorf and Jason Horvath.” www.interiordesign.net. November 1, 2012.
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