“These days, every little scrap of wood someone pulls out of a building they try to sell for a premium price,” says Uhuru co-founder Jason Horvath. “We look back and laugh; when we started, we were pulling anything we wanted out of dumpsters all over New York.” But the rise of New American Design, with its emphasis on materiality, is due in part to Horvath, his co-founder Bill Hilgendorf, and other designers like them.
The pair graduated from Rhode Island School of Design with degrees in Industrial Design and moved to Brooklyn in the early 2000s. “You do this amazing creative training with access to so many materials and tools only to end up stuck in a shoebox in the middle of Brooklyn with no facilities to make anything,” Horvath explains of their early days in New York. By 2002, they’d created a communal woodshop with some friends, by 2004, the pair had started Uhuru, naming it, in part, after a reggae band that was always playing in their shop. The word also means freedom in Swahili.
“The New American design aesthetic—really clean lines with textured materials—started in small shops like ours,” Horvath says. “All you need to make furniture like that is a welder and a couple wood tools.” Hilgendorf had focused on woodworking at RISD, while Horvath concentrated on welding, making collaboration easy. For a brand just starting out, reclaimed wood presented an interesting and affordable option.
Not only do they use reclaimed materials, Uhuru often highlights history through their modern interpretations. “We often start by finding wood with an interesting story and then we’d design these micro collections with that history as a guide,” Horvath says. They’ve made pieces from reclaimed bourbon barrels, the decking of the USS North Carolina (purchased from a Long Island garage) and beams from Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Refinery.
Their breakout piece was the 2010 Cyclone Lounger. When the old Coney Island Boardwalk was ripped up to make way for Luna Park, the two purchased wood that was first installed in 1940. “What we didn’t take went to the landfill,” Horvath says, still surprised six years on. The resulting design, a curvy chaise features the original boardwalk pieces (sans gum and bird poop) atop a laser cut base that mimics the roller coasters supports. It’s now in the Smithsonian Museum’s permanent collection.
Last summer, they hosted a multipurpose summer pop-up in the Hamptons called Uhuru Beach. In addition to showcasing their summer collection and inviting a number of notable New York designers and artists to share their own work, Uhuru Beach hosted a number of screenings, talks, and performances. “The pieces we showed were a mix of our classic collection in a more beachy iteration,” Horvath says. They used more poppy colors (like mint, bright pink, and a deep turquoise) with aged woods. “We left the finish a little rougher to give it that weathered texture,” Horvath says. Since the pieces can work indoors and outdoors, the use of well-weathered wood means exposure to elements will further enhance the look, rather than detracting from the design.
Their iconic single slab pieces of furniture often feature brass butterflies, a Japanese technique popularized by George Nakashima. “The wood needs to expand and contract and the butterflies hold large fissures together, allowing for natural movement,” Horvath says, adding, “They’re very functional but compositionally a very beautiful part of the furniture.”
Uhuru has attained massive success while remaining true to their initial commitment to sustainable and beautiful design made with care. Uhuru now employs 70 people. They’ve fabricated two Ace Hotels, done interiors for Shake Shack restaurants, and VICE’s 500 person office in Williamsburg. They just opened a Tribeca showroom and have a factory on a six-acre farm in Pennsylvania to handle large orders. But, the custom pieces are still made in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Looking back after a decade in the business, Horvath considers their luck. “Being a small, Brooklyn shop in the 2000s that made bespoke things out of reclaimed materials was almost like winning the lottery,” he says, of their initial success. “But, the popularity of New American Design has pushed us to continue to grow and change.”