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April 2008

Uhuru was founded in 2004 by Bill Hilgendorf and Jason Horvath, who met when they were both students in the Rhode Island School of Design. They design and build by hand all of the furniture pieces under the Uhuru name in their Brooklyn studio, using reclaimed, recycled, and repurposed materials that are, as often as possible, locally sourced. In a 2004 interview with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper, they said that constructing their own pieces make them better designers.

Uhuru’s mission statement states quietly but boldly that it is “dedicated to sustainability and creating timeless designs”- see how the word ‘sustainability’ comes first? One of the ways they do that, besides using locally sourced sustainable materials, is to use them in a way that creates as little waste as possible, and to always try to keep all their work, be it a Uhuru product or a big collaboration with another company, as local as possible.

To that end, or so it seems, most of the exhibitions Uhuru has participated in have been New York, including HauteGreen 2007. But good design can’t be a secret forever: Uhuru has been featured in several different online and print magazines including Cool Hunting, Architectural Record, and House & Garden. Both Hilgendorf and Horvath aim to one day be able to design more interiors in addition to their current work and have, in fact, already designed the interiors of some businesses including a bar, and the interiors of some residential apartments.

We speak with Horvath about what’s going on with Uhuru over in the Big Apple.

How did you get started in design? Why furniture design in particular?

We were always interested in creating beautiful forms, whether through paintings, sculpture, or furniture. We were inspired to focus on designing furniture because it is functional on a daily basis, but still has the ability to be instilled with conceptual elements. Furniture is the new art, right?

Why did you choose to focus your career on green design?

Green design isn’t really an option anymore if we want this planet to survive. We believe that materials like reclaimed and and sustainably forested wood could and should be used more widely. Using reclaimed or repurposed items also lends a certain depth to the furniture we design because of the history behind the materials. The old becomes new again.

Is green design more difficult than conventional design? Does advancement in technology have any impact on their designs?

Green design has its challenges, but they are no bigger than the challenges of conventional design. It is more a matter of being conscientious of the materials we use while staying true to our aesthetics and functional standards.

Besides being environmentally responsible, what else does your design philosophy entail?

Our design philosophy is based on simplicity and functionality. We strongly agree with the Shaker assertion that “beauty rests on utility.” We strive to make furniture and products that are beautiful in their simplicity with an acute awareness of materials, and craft.

What inspires you? How do you get from inspiration to end product?

We pull inspiration from every aspect of our day to day lives and our extensive travels. Our design process varies from piece to piece. We either start with a ‘found’ material and work into a form, or we start with a form or idea and figure out the materials and processes needed to make that product sustainable.

Do you use your own designs at home?

I would if I could afford them! Seriously, we make products all the time for our home but the problem with being a designer is they are always a sale. I never keep a coffee table for more than a month or so before someone buys it from me.

Which of your own designs do you like the most right now? Why?

Currently we are most excited about a line we are working on made entirely out of reclaimed bourbon barrels. Since I am from the bourbon state of Kentucky, it has long been an idea of ours to create a line based on these barrels.

What are you thinking of designing next?

We are setting up a program to teach furniture design to local artisan communities in the Caribbean for a series of eco-lodges. We can’t wait to see what ideas come out of that collaboration.

Tell us a bit about your journey to where you are now. What has been the best part of the entire experience?

Personally, the best part of the journey is what we have accomplished as a team. We have been creating an environment in which anything is possible from day to day. We love what we do and it is getting more fun every day.

Has receiving this much public attention changed how you looks at your own products, or the way you think about design?

It’s challenging to receive public attention because with that comes public scrutiny. But that isn’t necessarily bad if it keeps us focused on what is important. If anything, it has quickly heightened to our level of professionalism and organization.

What’s the public’s reception to green design today as compared to a few years ago? How about manufacturers?

Green design has exploded the last few years. When we started, only a few students and environmentalists were really talking about it. Now it’s a huge movement in design and architecture. The amount of collective wisdom grows exponentially and benefits both manufacturers and designers with sourcing and production practices.

Do you think you’ll turn your attention to designing other things?

We have plans for a home goods line, but for now we are trying REALLY hard to focus on furniture.

Which new, up-and-coming designer do you think we should keep an eye out for? Besides you guys, of course!

Some of our other Brooklyn homies: Palo Samko and Paul Lobac. Watch for these guys for sure.