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Cheek Magazine
From Reggae to Coney Island and Back to Brooklyn, Uhuru Design Believes Beauty Rests on Utility
May 2010
Caroline Shaheed
Jason Horvath and Bill Hilgendorf, Uhuru Design’s 30-something founders are fans of the Shaker Design Philosophy that “beauty rests on utility.” Their designs use repurposed materials to create sturdy and beautiful pieces of furniture.
“When we were at the Rhode Island School of Design, it was definitely a focus of our studies,” says Horvath. “A lot of the design studios, and furniture studios in particular, focused on sustainability in terms of the reuse of materials, etc. So I think that’s where we came from and that’s where we just kind of gravitated towards.”
Sustainable design for this duo isn’t only about the materials; they look at sustainability in the real sense of the word. “When we design something it’s not a trend or a fad,” says Hilgendorf. “It’s built to last and it’s designed in a way that will hopefully be timeless and last for generations. I think that’s also one of the most important parts of what makes us sustainable: making products that are going to last for 100 years.”
The designs are smart in more ways than just their looks. Take for example Uhuru’s most popular piece of furniture, the Stoolen seat, which is one of the first pieces they designed in 2004.
The Stoolen, which can also be used as a table, is made out of various scraps of wood, like walnut, ebony, cherry and pine collected from local woodshops.  Horvath and Hilgendorf call this “up-cycling”—the use of discarded low value materials to create a high-value item. A piece that’s sustainable and multi-functional.
“In New York you can find amazing things on the street all the time,” says Hilgendorf. “People are throwing out all kinds of different stuff. We were consistently inspired by things that we would find.”
One afternoon, while Horvath was out for a walk in his Brooklyn neighbourhood he started noticing all the cast iron fences. That walk inspired the creation of the Fenced In Table.
“I ended up hunting down a bunch of these fence parts and doing this table. It’s actually really simple,” notes Horvath. “I think some of my favourite pieces are
actually the ones that are the most simple. At first glance they appear to be one liners; but there is a concept behind them that makes them more.”
Hilgendorf and Horvath aren’t your standard designers. Music is constantly pumping through their second-floor studio in an old metal factory in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The Clash’s London Calling was the soundtrack during our chat. “We have a couple DJ’s that are employees, so there is always something different playing in the studio… these guys keep us up to date on what’s going on,” laughs Horvath.
The studio, with its 15-foot ceilings and huge skylights, is open and airy, but also plays with the industrial aspects. The studio has character, just like their designs, which each come with their own story.
Take the Bilge Chair thought up while Hilgendorf hyped up on coffee  at a conference in Kyoto.
“I am pretty sensitive to caffeine so I got really wired, and I just started sketching,” says Hilgendorf. “I came up with this idea to make the base of this chair out of leaf
springs from trucks and to cantilever it way out.”
No one at the studio thought it would work, but Hilgendorf was determined. He got some old truck springs, degreased them, and starting welding the thing
together. After some refinement and some input from everyone in the studio, it worked.
“It was pretty exciting,” says Hilgendorf. “The wood is from old barrels and the whole base is springs from trucks, which we get from a source that gets them from
New York City fire trucks.” Up-cycling at its finest.
Hilgendorf and Horvath have always designed this way. The limitations and restrictions in materials help push their creativity to new levels. “Sometimes we’ll design a product based on its form, and then we’ll find materials that fit into it in a way that is sustainable,” says Horvath. “Other times we find the materials that’s already there and we kind of let the language of that material depict what that design is going to be. I don’t think one direction is harder than the other, it’s just a different process.”
Up next is a line made with materials from Coney Island. “There is such a rich history in Coney Island, especially with the imagery and things you can dig into, it’s real meaty you know. It’s been a blast,” says Horvath. “I dunno, it just keeps getting more fun. Life’s fun and easy, it’s good.”
Oh, and if you are wondering where the name came from, there’s a story there too, Uhuru means Freedom in Swahili.
“But the honest truth is that it came from the reggae band Black Uhuru,” says Hilgendorf. I am a pretty big fan and was even more at the time.”
“We used to call him ‘Rasta Bill’ in college,” says Horvath with a laugh. Whatever the name, and for whatever the reasons, the designs are made to stay.