Trek out to the farthest tip of the Red Hook waterfront late on a Friday afternoon, and you’re just as likely to find Uhuru Design employees drinking Brooklyn-brewed beer together as you are to find them making furniture. They might also be engaged in acrobatically hammering a nail into a tree stump, a game they like to play. “Yes, we have worker’s comp,” cofounder and creative director Bill Hilgendorf jokes. Ever since the design-build firm left its first studio for one that’s three times as big, Hilgendorf says, “The energy level is completely different. People are really excited about what they’re able to do here.”
One of the first design concerns to set up shop in Red Hook, Uhuru takes its name from the word for freedom in Swahili. “It’s a constant reminder for us to live the lives and dreams we originally laid out,” cofounder and CEO Jason Horvath says. He and Hilgendorf started out in 2004 in this industrial neighborhood, building massive tables and stools out of wood scraps.
Since moving down the street, the pair have expanded their staff from 20 to over 50, purchased a CNC machine, added a jewelry collection to the repertoire, and made the interiors department more robust. That’s possible thanks to the 10,000-square-foot shop, 4,500 square feet that already contains office space and will soon feature a café for the public. In addition, Uhuru has opened a showroom in TriBeCa and a facility in Pennsylvania where furniture for such clients as the Ace Hotel New Orleans and Shake Shack is manufactured, so the Red Hook studio can be partly devoted to experimentation. “It’s no longer a factory where we’re just pumping stuff out,” Horvath says. “It’s more like an artists’ atelier now.”
It’s hard to believe that all this growth was something of a happy accident, the result of getting forced out of the old building. Hilgendorf sent a desperate e-mail to a local Listserv, and a reply came from the owner of a warehouse that had been damaged during Hurricane Sandy. The goods were cleared out, and the designers moved in. Best of all, the ware-house still has loads of empty space available if Uhuru needs to expand again.