Back in 2004, two years after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, friends Jason Horvath and Bill Hilgendorf launched their own, scrappy design firm, handcrafting furniture for predominately residential clients (or whoever was willing to pay them).

Eleven years later, Uhuru Design counts $4 million in annual revenue, with projections that more than double that figure in 2015. Interestingly, the bohemian, Brooklyn-based designers mostly have New York City's growing tech community to thank. 

The pieces began falling into place for the company in 2012, when it landed its first major client, Google. The tech giant commissioned two of Uhuru's B-55 Rocker chairs for its San Francisco offices. From there, the co-founders began offering bespoke furniture pieces, as well as product and interior design services, to the likes of Vice Media, Shake Shack, and WeWork, to name three.

Today, Uhuru makes it a point to only work with clients it finds "progressive." It just so happens that these types of companies are also--much of the time--"upstarts," as Horvath calls them. 

"Back when we were getting started, we were working with some companies that we didn't have as much say in what was going on in the process, and that was not what we wanted," Horvath says. Now, as revenue streams in, "we focus our bids competitively toward the ones we want." 

So what do they do for their startup clients?

Bespoke by Design

Uhuru's design aesthetic oftentimes centers on wood and metal, for a minimalist, Scandinavian feel. "Almost every piece we do incorporates those two elements," says Horvath, which he says nods to a broader trend in the startup world. "A hot one is the black-on-black theme, like a beautiful charred oak with a hand blackened steel that creates beautiful lines in a white space. We used that quite a lot in the Vice project." 

Once an Uhuru design gets OKed by the client, pieces are manufactured at one of three locations, depending on the scale of the project. Some items, specifically the ones expected to have the "highest visual impact," are crafted locally at the firm's flagship facility in Brooklyn. For midsize orders, Uhuru sources from a six-acre farm in Pennsylvania, which Horvath describes as "a hub in the wheel of original production." Uhuru also has facilities in Vietnam for the big projects, such as furnishing entire hotels or restaurants. Even that facility fits with the company's overall mission. "They [the Vietnamese] care immensely about craft," Horvath explains. 

Clash of the Titans

Working on larger projects with "progressive" clients, as opposed to one-offs with individuals, does pose some unique challenges.

For one thing, as with Vice and Shake Shack, Uhuru often collaborates with different teams--third-party architects, as well as the startups' own designers--and sometimes that means clashing personalities. "We give everyone options and you settle on a design, and then someone from upper management will step in and say, 'I don't like that,' and you have to go back to the drawing board," says Horvath. In these situations, he adds, it's best to be flexible and "stay fluid." 

There's also an environmental cost that comes in manufacturing thousands of pieces for corporate clients, which Uhuru works hard to minimize. Consider Shake Shack: The design team originally approached Uhuru themselves, requesting thousands of stools derived from the firm's original Hulihee chair concept. Knowing the amount of wood that this would require, Uhuru altered the chair's dimensions, crafting a half-inch-thick seat as opposed to a one-inch-thick seat. "It was the first time we'd really challenged ourselves to reflect the use of material in a more appropriate way," says Horvath.

Another example: For a project for the Starwood Hotels, Uhuru elected to finger-joint smaller scraps of wood together for benches, as opposed to using whole planks. Uhuru gets creative in other ways, too, using reclaimed materials when it can: These range from wood from bourbon barrels to planks from the Coney Island boardwalk. 

The Way Forward

For its design aesthetic, creativity, and environmental savvy, Uhuru has already attracted the attention of New York City's great design voices, with some pieces residing in the Smithsonian's and Brooklyn Museum's permanent collections. And in January 2014, Uhuru opened its first showroom in New York City's Tribeca neighborhood. In the future, it plans to continue embracing the challenge of large-scale production: More projects with hotels may be on the horizon, hints Horvath.

The company's core values will hold fast, as reflected by the word uhuru itself, which means "freedom" in Swahili. Horvath adds: "What [Uhuru] meant was freedom for us to design how we wanted, and live our lives how we wanted. It's allowed us an underlying sense of freedom for all the projects that we do, and the clients that we work with." 

Published on: Jun 17, 2015