Spec Perspective: King Henrybuilt

David Sokol David Sokol

In the matter of two decades, America has gone from having (arguably) “no” design scene to boasting a bona fide design movement. Role models have provided one source of that transformation, and Henrybuilt stands chief among them. Best known for its kitchens, the company approaches the function, materiality, and execution of all its products with the same rigor. No detail is overlooked, and authenticity reigns — traits that have become the best hallmarks of the new American way.

Not to suggest that Henrybuilt’s earnest leader Scott Hudson has become complacent for it. “I feel pushed to keep improving based on direct experience with the product and our client’s direct experience with the product,” he says. Hudson spoke with Architizer about what makes him tick.

Name: Scott Hudson
Age: 53
Title: Founder and CEO of Henrybuilt
Location: Seattle, Wash.

It’s been a while — 10 years, in fact — since our last visit. Can you offer a refresher course defining system versus custom kitchen?

Defining what these terms mean and how the different approaches matter to the client is really our biggest challenge as a company. This year, we are turning our attention to clarifying this within the industry.

A system kitchen is designed as an integrated system of products and presented as a whole solution. It requires a sustained design focus over many years to create a high-quality kitchen system. A system kitchen can be low-quality or high-quality, just as a custom kitchen can be, and it can be ugly or beautiful just like a custom kitchen. But a high-quality system kitchen is almost always better than a high-quality custom kitchen.

A system kitchen does not have to be modular. Some people conflate the two things. And it can be made to order, or pre-produced.

In the residential building industry, the word custom is used many different ways. Because people have a romantic association with the notion of custom, most system kitchen companies present their product as ‘custom.’ But custom is really centered on the making of parts — usually specified by one party like an architect or builder — and made by cabinetmaker at many different levels of quality. If both the designer and the cabinetmaker are very good, then the result might approach that of a high-quality system kitchen. That also requires expert coordination of many elements from many sources, which introduces a lot of risk into the outcome and will not save the homeowner any money.

And a Henrybuilt kitchen exists somewhere outside this spectrum?

The system approach originated in Europe and, instead of parts, it is a smart, whole solution. Yet even these true performance kitchens have suffered limitations. Namely, they are difficult to meld into the architecture, and difficult to integrate with a home’s other millwork.

Henrybuilt eliminates both of those weaknesses. Henrybuilt also produces at a craft quality level, which is better than virtually all custom shops. Our primary focus is the overall experience of living with our product.

You’ve always taken care to credit your team of designers and craftspeople. How have they influenced Henrybuilt’s evolution since its launch in 2001?

Immeasurably, for sure — in lots of little ways every day. Influence comes from finance and sales and marketing and logistics, as well. Everyone who interacts with the product or the client and brings back insight makes an impact. Having both design and manufacturing under one roof is absolutely critical to achieving what we are focused on.

And what changes have you observed on the consumer side since then?

Every year, people get more sophisticated about design with a big D. By which I mean total product quality — not just the look of something, but also the feeling you get from living with something. Among our clients specifically, ostentation is not good; understatement is more important than it was ten years ago. Quality also is really important. This isn’t an original observation, but the iPhone taught people a lot about quality and simplicity, and that carries through in a good way.

Would you cite a recent project that exemplifies consumer taste today?

The 33-unit Sterling Mason project in Tribeca, designed by Morris Adjimi and Gachot Studios and built by Taconic Investments, is a beautiful combination of modern and traditional, and it is built with true quality throughout. It’s not trying to be novel. It’s about living well.

Are there product solutions that normally accompany a Henrybuilt kitchen?

We don’t limit our clients, but we do make strong recommendations when it comes to appliances, in particular. Gaggenau, for example, is our choice in our showrooms. It is the oldest appliance company in the world, and the product is exceptional. Many of our clients use our backsplash system, and our system includes countertop lighting. We often advise on flooring and trim detailing, as well.

Why did you move into whole-house solutions?

Part of it was strategic: If a company can apply a system approach to a whole house, then it changes the whole decision-making process for some clients. Also, many of our clients asked for this. It’s not a trivial undertaking, and it makes perfect sense from the point of view of the client, architect, and general contractor.

And your reason for going into freestanding furniture? For example, is it a means for fans to have Henrybuilt, even if they don’t need or can’t afford a larger system solution? Or perhaps it was simply a new design challenge for you and your team to relish?

To extend the experience, and, yes, also because it is a distilled design challenge that can be applied to our primary areas.

What furniture sells best, and why do you think so?

Tables, counter stools, and our Wave Bench. Unlike a kitchen purchase, motivations for buying furniture are mysterious.

Looking back, what critical moments still impact you today?

Big ones include the hiring of certain great people, who have contributed so much over time; the opening of our first New York showroom; and the decision to implement the Toyota production system across operations. Someday, I think we will look back and put the development of the Opencase system on this list, too.

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