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Over the past decade, furniture design has seen a total transformation, with numerous brands designing sustainable pieces made from reclaimed woods, metals, and fibers rather than using expensive, resource-draining materials. Just wander around the design studios of Brooklyn for proof.
But even before the NYC borough became a hot bed for locally sourced, sustainable goods, furniture brand Uhuru was leading the charge. Launched in 2004 by Rhode Island School of Design graduates Jason Horvath and Bill Hilgendorf, Uhuru—which translates to "freedom" in Swahili—began with a focused vision: conceiving, designing, and producing environmentally sensitive furniture that adds more good to the world than it takes.
Uhuru's furniture designed for the New Museum
Starting with a simple furniture line created from discarded objects like telephone poles and cast-iron fencing found on the New York City streets, the multidisciplinary firm has grown into an international brand, with pieces in the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum of Art and collaborations with artists such as Maya Lin. (Uhuru has branched out in terms of materials too: When not using found objects, the designers use wood that is FSC-certified or that has come from fallen trees in managed forests within a 500-mile radius of Brooklyn.)
But above all, Uhuru's fevered commitment to sustainability sets the studio apart from its contemporaneity. "We believed that the most sustainable thing to do was to create heirloom quality furniture that will be used again and again, passed down from generation to generation."
Pieces from the Warcraft Line, made out of materials from the USS North Carolina battleship
Horvath's model of the USS North Carolina (Hilgendorf in the background)
We ventured to Uhuru's warehouse in Red Hook to hear how the designers find their unusual materials.
Exterior of Uhuru Design Studio
Jason: We met at RISD around 2000—we were in the same industrial design class. After graduation, I’d moved to the city, and pretty quickly Bill convinced me that we needed to have a workspace. Bill was working for a cabinet maker, doing really hands-on craft stuff and learning to deal with clients, and I was working for an interior designer. We realized pretty quickly that we could open up our own shop. So I started work from the interior design firm, which became our only client for the first year. And it just started slowly growing by word of mouth.
Designer at work in the Uhuru Studio
Bill: At the beginning it was a lot of custom things—probably 99% custom—we would build anything for anyone. If we didn’t know how to build it we would figure it out. We had an aesthetic that developed pretty quickly—like this tubed-steel-and-wood look started in the beginning.
Their first real collection
Jason: In 2006, an opportunity at a Brooklyn design show—that was the first that we really had to put a line together. That process really started to define our style. We still have a lot of pieces in our line today that were in that show.
Interior of Uhuru design studio
Jason: That line really came out of us being young poor designers in New York. We called it the Brooklyn line, because it was really inspired by Brooklyn and the things we saw. I mean, literally we were pulling things off the street. Back then you could walk down the street and pull beams out of dumpsters, we found some amazing old cast iron fences parts on sidewalks.
Bill: There really wasn’t a market for reclaimed stuff then, this was a combination of stuff we had found, and sort of off-cuts of jobs we were working on. I don’t think we bought any materials for that line.
Hilgendorf's pickup truck, with the #Chairtruck, a supersized version of the Hulihee chair used for promotion
Bill: I crashed my Jeep, and with insurance money, I was able to buy a pickup truck. We had it for years. Once we saw these beams over in Chelsea, and we just drove up, grabbed them and put them in the truck.
Sustainability, upcycling, and chairs made out of garbage
Bill: Coming out of school, we were kind of just at the beginning of this whole focus on sustainability.
Jason: There was definitely a focus on sustainability in our school, like classes about making a chair out of garbage—that was actually a class we took. It was was a fresh idea then to take something that had been discarded and make it something better.
Wall decoration in Uhuru's showroom
Bill: I think on a minimal level that we do things in a way that are as sustainable as possible. There’s so much product out there, so a lot of our focus is to make sure that everything we make has a purpose, is made well, is built to last. It’s about being very conscious of what make, what we add to the world.
Bourbon barrel lids being prepared
Bill: We do have people calling us up asking if we want to come check out what they have. It has become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Jason grew up in Kentucky and had some friends in the bourbon business, so they helped us find bourbon barrels for a new line.
Jason: As a team we are always looking. Part of it is looking for things in abundant supply, that haven’t really been used for furniture. The Coney Island line was a huge line for us. It kind of hit at a time where the future of Coney Island was in question. And when they replaced the boardwalk it gave us some really cool materials. There’s such a rich history there that we got to work with.
Jason: We’ve also worked with a company that works with reclaimed materials, and we found these old fishing boats in Indonesia. We’ve found pockets all over the world. Every couple of months we’ll travel.
Furniture that tells a story
Jason: It’s really like a slice out of nature. Each piece is going to be completely unique. Someone has to really have to understand that when they are buying, and that’s why the process is a little different.
Bill: A lot of our basic pieces are about materials being sustainably sourced, whereas our collections are about material history and have a story. When something has a story, they like to tell it, pass it on. There’s oral history that comes with it. But the pieces are also beautiful and functional, independent of the story. They stand on their own, first and foremost.
To learn more about Uhuru's beautiful, sustainable designs, head to their Architizer profile.