“It doesn’t matter if you’re using sustainable wood if it ends up on the curb” said Ben Young, SOM ’16 in a recent interview with YEM.
Young, along with fellow SOM graduate Frederick Kukelhaus, is a co-founder of Hugo & Hoby, a New Haven-grown startup that is producing small-batch handcrafted furniture through an innovative order system. Their “rustic but modern” designs incorporate clean lines and sustainable materials, appealing to both minimalists and environmentally conscious customers.
Hugo & Hoby utilizes a network of regional craftspeople across New England who generally produce pricey one-off furniture. The batch-order system lessens the cost of any individual piece, making pieces more affordable and providing craftspeople with steady work. Customers can choose from a set of designs on the website, and every two weeks, the orders are sent out to the smattering of workshops sprinkled across New England. Young then receives the furniture parts and flatpacks them at his home in New Haven before shipping the packages. There is little need for excess inventory, which also helps keep costs and waste down.
Young and Kukelhaus did not set out to become furniture revolutionaries, or even entrepreneurs. As incoming graduate students and housemates, they hoped to outfit their new apartment with sturdy furniture that represented their tastes without breaking their budgets. Dissatisfied with the particle-board pieces from Ikea and limited by student budgets, Young and Kukelhaus created a set of standing desks for themselves. Each had a grandfather who was a skilled architect or craftsman, and Young and Kukelhaus both enjoyed building furniture.
“We were looking at some of the pieces we were making and saying ‘why couldn’t we stick this in the mail? This isn’t expensive for us to build.” said Young. The duo noticed the discrepancy between the robust e-commerce market for fashion and the lack of similar options for furniture, and thought maybe they had a way to fill the gap. They applied for business grants, but the concept was still hazy, and they were met with a string of rejections.
“Through getting rejected, we were like ‘no, we’re actually serious. We think this is a really good idea.’” said Young. They realized that to get support, they had to prove their model would work. The partners began constructing furniture in their garage, initially selling mostly to friends and friends of friends. Their first customer who was a complete stranger found their listing on Craigslist and drove from Brooklyn to New Haven to pick up the desk.
It was a 2015 summer YEI fellowship that helped the pair refine Hugo & Hoby. They forged partnerships with New England craftspeople and explored sources for sustainable materials. They discovered that the expertise of their Yale classmates was invaluable, as well as cheap. In exchange for pizza and beer, Kukelhaus and Young received input on pricing, design, and marketing. They partnered with a class from the School of Forestry on how to best communicate their commitment to sustainability.
Hugo & Hoby unveiled its first website collection in December of 2015. Since then, the startup has equipped the homes of people looking to invest in furniture built to last. More recently, they have ventured into the enterprise side, providing pieces for restaurants including New Haven’s Tikkaway Grill and companies like Common, another Yale alum’s New York-based company that rents pre-furnished apartments in major cities. Kukelhaus is now located in D.C., and is working to bring Hugo & Hoby to the capital, including Common’s development there.
“I do think that there is a New England flair to our furniture.” said Young. They try to showcase the wood and highlight the unique grains of the materials. Unlike most of their competitors, Hugo & Hoby use hardwood, rather than particleboard. The woods, predominantly ash, walnut, cherry, and maple, are sustainably harvested from nearby forests.
Not only do the materials give the pieces a regional flavor, but Kukelhaus said that the designs provide a use for wood that might otherwise sit in storage for decades or even be turned into kindling. Young’s grandparents were early environmentalists, and Hugo & Hoby’s commitment to sustainability was important to both him and Kukelhaus.
Along with using regional wood, the components are crafted nearby, eliminating the need for long-distance shipping in the manufacturing process. The wood is finished with organic mineral oil and beeswax, since the hardwood does not require layers of flame retardants like particleboard. The company advertises that for every purchase, a tree is planted. Arguably the biggest component of Hugo & Hoby’s sustainability plan is that the pieces are built to last, breaking the cycle of cheap and disposable furniture that often ends up on the curb.
Despite a small advertising budget and lack of a physical showroom, the environmental emphasis, long-term investment ideology, and New England style have proved popular, and orders are growing. Young believes the best advertising is word-of-mouth from satisfied customers.
Hugo & Hoby wants buying a piece to be an engaging personal experience. A customer ordering a standing desk, for example, specifies the height for the forged-steel legs and chooses the wood for the butcher block top. She receives updates when her order is placed at the end of the two week collection period, and then periodic notifications as the craftspeople create the components. This approach seems to be working, and some production is shifting to larger workshops as volumes increase. Hugo & Hoby recently unveiled a designer of the month feature, teaming up this month with a RISD student on a maple and walnut French rolling pin. The partnerships generate creative products for Hugo & Hoby and publicity for up and coming artists.
Being an entrepreneur and a small business owner is not always glamorous, but Young said he finds the job rewarding. “It’s a lot of hard work but a lot of fun,” he said. Young believes that Hugo & Hoby’s Yale background has helped it succeed thus far, and the startup is continuing to leverage its University connections, looking for Yale alums whose businesses could use the furniture. New Haven itself has also been instrumental in the Hugo & Hoby’s trajectory. The Elm city is close to big cities that offer many opportunities like New York and Boston, but it also has more space and cheaper living costs that make entrepreneurship more feasible.
“We’ve loved being in New Haven. I think it’s a perfect city to start a business.” said Young.