Made in America: An Inside Look at a Virginia Furniture Workshop
Written By: Heather Corcoran, senior editor, Dwell, May 5, 2015
In Richmond, Virginia, furniture brand Fern & Roby is helping keep American manufacturing alive.
Sara Moriarty, Christopher Hildebrand, and Hinmaton Hisler pose outside the workshop of Tektonics, a Richmond, Virginia, design and manufacturing group based in the city's historic industrial hub of Manchester. Founded in 2003, Tektonics is also home to bicycle product lines Stijl Cycles and LocoMachine, as well as the furniture, audio, and hard ware line Fern & Roby. It houses a design studio, metal fabrication shop, CNC machine shop, and woodworking shop in a sunny 20,000-square-foot building built in the 1930s by the Army Corps of Engineers.
"Learning how to make something, whether it’s an industrial fastener or a fine piece of furniture, requires a huge amount of intellect, self-control, and dedication," says Hildebrand, co-founder of both Tektonics and Fern & Roby. "I have found that my experiences working as a craftsman has been the single biggest influence in my life as a designer."
Materials are at the core of everything the various firms produce at the shop. Leftover scraps from Tektonics's commercial projects are often recycled an reused in pieces for Fern & Roby, while the imperfections in wood and cast metal are celebrated. "Revealing the origin of material and narrative of the process is central to our life and our pieces," say the brand's husband-and-wife co-owners Moriarty and Hildebrand. "Wood and cast metal—these materials naturally have flaws and imperfections. They are the result of processes that leave traces behind. The pine beams that were reclaimed have holes where there were once nails, and cracks where the wood has settled and split. Those aren’t things to hide, they are telltales of the material’s origin."
Fern & Roby's furniture combines modern finishes with a reverence for the history of American industry. The base of this kitchen island is a reproduction of legs from a salvaged 19th-century kick press machine, which the designers had cast at OK Foundry, a fourth-generation owned family business located four blocks from the Tektonics studio.
Along with furniture, Fern & Roby also creates audio equipment (speakers and, soon, amplifiers) as well as tabletop accessories, or, as the firm's founders phrase it: "tools for living." With a focus on quality materials, the work is created to be passed down as heirlooms.