Where I Work: Bill Hilgendorf and Jason Horvath of Uhuru Design

09.19.17 | By
Where I Work: Bill Hilgendorf and Jason Horvath of Uhuru Design

Multidisciplinary studio Uhuru Design, co-founded by Bill Hilgendorf and Jason Horvath in 2004, specializes in custom furniture design with a focus on sustainability. The duo comes from different worlds but found common ground while earning their Bachelor’s degrees in Fine Arts in 2002. Along the way, they’ve expanded to include full-service interior design for residential, commercial, and hospitality projects, all while designing unique furniture, some of which has landed in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian and the Brooklyn Museum. While they have a showroom in TriBeCa, the brand calls Brooklyn’s Red Hook home, a place that continues to offer inspiration. In this month’s Where I Work, the pair gives us insight into their individual work styles and creative processes. Take a look.

What is your typical work style?

Bill: My work schedule is pretty consistent, after I get my kids to school, I like to check email and have my morning coffee at home before coming into the office. It gives me a chance to have some uninterrupted time and think about the day and what I want to get accomplished. I’m usually in the office from 10-7. I like to concept ideas on my own and find inspiration for new collections as I walk the streets of Red Hook, but also really like the collaborative aspect of our open studio. I feel like the best ideas come out when people put there heads together as a team.

Jason: I have never been a 9-5 type of person – which is one of the main reasons I wanted to be in business for myself. I generally need peace and quiet to focus at home when I want to be creative and then come into the office for meetings with our team or clients.

What’s your studio/work environment like?

Bill: I definitely feel more productive when things are organized. I like to be in tune with what is going on in the office, but when I need to focus I often will put on headphones. I do have a habit of having 100 windows open on my computer though…

Jason: We have an open studio space – lots of dogs and music around. Our belief is that work should be fun and accessible – but have locations available where people can step aside to focus or have serious phone calls.

How is your space organized/arranged?

Bill: We work in a 4500 square ft open office, which also includes our photo studio and a full kitchen and lounge. We have different pods for the different departments of the company – operations, production design, project management, account management and art department. Our studio sits right on the edge of the water in Red Hook, so I have a great view of the Statue of Liberty and the bay from where I sit. It is very special to have this relationship to the water and I never take that for granted. I also have a small 10X10 ft studio in our workshop across the hall, if I need to have a private meeting or just go somewhere to not work on an idea or focus I retreat to that space.

Jason: When I’m in the office I work side-by-side with my co-founder Bill. We don’t have a private space – although sometimes I think it could be nice.

How long have you been in this space? Where did you work before that?

Bill: We have been in this space for almost 3 years. It is an old brick and timber warehouse from the 1850s. We had our studio and workshop just down the street for a decade before we moved here. It was in an old industrial building that housed a company that repaired huge marine diesel engines. The scale of the tools were amazing, and it was a really special space. That building got sold when we moved and is now the East Coast headquarters for Tesla Motors, complete with a showroom and service facility. I live across the street and it is still weird to see that building all lit up at night.

Jason: We have been in our current office for 3 years and before that we were in a building just down the street for 10 years. Our old building got turned into a Tesla dealership – times are changing!

If you could change something about your workspace, what would it be?

Bill: More doughnuts. No, I think the most critical thing right now is to finish up our conference room. It’s always a work in progress.

Jason: We are in the process of developing more private spaces for telephone and conference. We spend a lot of time in group meetings and they can get a bit loud and disruptive to the rest of the office.

Is there an office pet?

Bill: There is a revolving door of pets in the office, employees are welcome to bring their dogs as long as they’re not too distracting. The first dog was Jason’s dog Rasta (seen here on our Tack bench). The youngest dog was Stella, a 12 week old Australian Shepherd (seen here on our DK chair).

Jason: There are a few! Two Pitbulls (mine), a Frenchie and a Dachshund.

Do you require music in the background? If so, who are some favorites?

Bill: The music is always on in the workshop. We are pretty democratic about it, but our namesake, Black Uhuru is always a standard.

Jason: We love music – current summer playlist is anything reggae and Future Islands’ new album.

How do you record ideas?

Bill: I use a combination of Notes on my Mac, a Rollbahn with grid paper and Sketchup.

Jason: I have an active sketchbook and Moleskine – but I still tend to grab whatever scrap paper is around and I’m well known for stealing pens and pencils off people’s desks.

Do you have an inspiration board? What’s on it right now?

Bill: This is my most recent inspiration board from this past winter. A couple different concepts for new collections. The one in the center won out. I also have an object-based mood board lining my desk.

Jason: I don’t.

What is your creative process and/or creative workflow like? Does it change every project or do you keep it the same?

Bill: It really depends on the project. If I am working on a new collection, I like to start with a simple inspiration, usually something very tangible and specific. From there I do connecting and figure out how the inspiration could be translated into a functional piece of furniture. Then I make selections to work up a full drawing set where things begin to get engineered. This usually involves getting into the workshop to flush out details or forms and finishes before the designs are finalized.

Jason: I’m constantly sketching ideas and concepts for no particular project. When I’m on a project I generally pull from those ideas I’ve already been thinking about for some time. From the outside in I think the perception about my process is that it happens very quickly while the opposite is actually true.

What kind of art/design/objects might you have scattered about the space?

Bill: We don’t have a ton of art around the office, mostly photo prints of nature and objects that have served as inspiration for collections we have done. Most people know I’m often scavenging weird objects around Red Hook, and I love this pile of barge rope from the waterfront. It has been a key “installation” in our office, as well as inspired us to create the Weather Rope wall piece.

Jason: We are surrounded by prototypes, models and bits of pieces of materials and samples – they feel like mini sculptures all over the office.

Are there tools and/or machinery in your space?

Bill: We have a Makerbot 3D printer, but it got relegated to my studio, because the noise was driving people crazy when it was running. Across the hall though, we have a full wood and metal fabrication shop, including this CNC machine that is pretty cool.

Jason: We have a full wood and metal prototype shop attached to our office. It was our main production space for years – and now that we moved that down to Pennsylvania it is our creative playground. It always feels great to be able to get into the studio and get our hands dirty working with a new material or process.

What tool(s) do you most enjoy using in the design process?

Bill: I honestly mostly like to design with a Pigma 01 micron pen and my sketchbook and Sketchup. Our style is very minimal, if it doesn’t work in Sketchup it is probably not Uhuru aesthetic anyway….

Jason: I love metal working – welding especially. It’s a very immediate process to understand scale and proportion when we are prototyping.

Let’s talk about how you’re wired. Tell us about your tech arsenal/devices.

Bill: I am firmly Apple-based. I have a MacBook Air that travels with me everyday and an iMac at the office for design work, and of course my iPhone.

Jason: iPhone and MacBook Pro. I like my tech to be mobile. Sometimes it is difficult to work on a small screen but I think it is a worth while trade off for mobility.

What design software do you use, if any, and for what?

Bill: We use Rhino and Autocad the most of our drawing sets, with Keyshot for rendering new ideas, but we are in the midst of an office wide shift to Solidworks which is very exciting from a design standpoint.

Jason: I use Illustrator and Photoshop for combining hand sketches/renderings/graphics to express ideas to our design team.

Coney Island Cyclone Lounger

Is there a favorite project/piece you’ve worked on?

Bill: The Coney Island line is still one of the projects that I am the most proud of. The Cyclone Lounger is above.

Jason: Vice Media’s offices were a huge project for us and led us into selling product in the Workplace market.

Do you feel like you’ve “made it”? What has made you feel like you’ve become successful? At what moment/circumstances? Or what will it take to get there?

Bill: We definitely have some good projects under our belts and I feel like our aesthetic is pretty established, but I still feel like there is a lot to learn. We have been around for 13 years now, so it makes sense that people know of our work, but I am still surprised when I travel outside of NY and so many people know Uhuru.

Jason: Fundamentally I believe the small victories are the best so from the very beginning I’ve felt successful as we grew. Success is a perception and I’m so happy and grateful with the team we have grown and the work we have created.



Fold process

Tell us about a current project you’re working on. What was the inspiration behind it?

Bill: We just launched the Fold collection, it is something I have been working on for the last year. The original inspiration was metal strapping from pallets that gets flattened in the street by cars.

What’s on your desk right now?

See below.

Bill’s bed

Do you have anything in your home that you’ve designed/created?

Bill: I have a lot of furniture that I have designed in my apartment, mostly prototypes and client rejects, but I did get a chance to design the perfect bed (above) for our small bedroom. It is oak and powder coated steel, and has 6 large storage drawers under it. Also I just completed building a cabin (below) in the Catskills for my family. It’s a little unconventional in that it is actually an addition to an old barn, but it has been the most comprehensive project I’ve worked on, and a really amazing process and extremely rewarding.

Bill’s cabin

Jason: My home is in the same building as our studio and I built it and almost everything in it from scratch. I think it is very important as a designer to live amongst your objects and design.

Caroline Williamson is Editor-in-Chief of Design Milk. She has a BFA in photography from SCAD and can usually be found searching for vintage wares, doing New York Times crossword puzzles in pen, or reworking playlists on Spotify.