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Happy Hour With Fern & Roby

Richmond, ConversationBICS Admin

Fern & Roby was founded by Christopher Hildebrand and his wife Sara Moriarty in 2013, serving as a pressure relief valve from the day-to-day operations of their industrial design and manufacturing firm, Tektonics Design Group. As Tektonics grew over the years, Chris's role had begun to move away from his training in fine art and craft and into design, general management, and business development.

By getting back to their roots and building furniture for Fern & Roby, Chris and Sara created an avenue to start implementing their own ideas and reconnect with the pleasure of making something from scratch. The name of the company also reflects a personal narrative, since it’s named after both of Chris's grandmothers. We stopped by Fern & Roby's design shop to see first-hand the process behind creating their brilliant work.

What do you do and why?

Fern & Roby designs and builds things as tools for living. Audio components, tables, desks, small wares. They all have a place in our lives. 

We currently have a cast iron turntable, an amp, and two speaker designs. These have been developed over the course of the past three years. We’re also in the middle of producing three new audio components—a second and slimmer turntable design, a phono preamp, and dipole subwoofers. We work with sustainably-sourced material as much as possible. Our wood is salvaged, and our cast metal table bases and audio pieces have a very high recycled content, which is important to us.

All of our work is produced with the conviction that products shouldn’t be throw-away items.  I think daily life is enhanced by the inclusion of heirloom quality objects that enhance your experience. Mostly we are just people who get excited about ideas and have fun pursuing the creation of the final product. The best thing besides enjoying that process and our own final products is seeing someone else get the same pleasure from our work. Each table, whether it’s an 18 foot-long conference table with hollow cast bronze bases that allow for integrated IT or a domestic-scaled coffee table, can be a work surface or a place to commune, socialize and eat food with friends.

Tell us about your work.

Our pieces are both traditional and modern, with intersections of raw and refined materials. Materials are the foundational part of our process in design. The Beam Speakers are a great example—they’re a real departure from the slick plastic aesthetic seen in the audio market—the rusticity of the material is distinctly modern. We would never use a veneer to suggest another material than that used. Likewise with the cast iron turntable—it has a simplicity of form and an authenticity that people really respond to.

Revealing the origin of material and narrative of the process is central to our life and our pieces. Wood and cast metal—these materials naturally have flaws and imperfections. They are the result of processes that leave traces behind. We like to leave them exposed, as in the Beam speakers. 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. 

Tell us about your space.

Fern & Roby operates from within the Tektonics space - our 20,000 square foot shop houses our design studio, metal fabrication shop, CNC machine shop and woodworking shop. Sara and I bought the building 4 years ago when Tektonics was nearing the end of its lease in its old building on Stockton, and we knew we wanted to stay in Manchester.

We’re over next to the Williams Bridge Building, in an industrial pocket just south of Maury Street. The building was built in 1930s by the Army Corps of Engineers and has 8000 square feet of skylights—not a lot of shops have natural light at such a scale, and I think it impacts the general mood in a positive way. We love the history of the building and the classic wood trusses throughout the space. The openness of the facility means that people continually interact with one another on projects, and move easily between design and fabrication.

Our studio overall is all about the intersection of traditional tradecraft with advanced manufacturing and design--you would be as likely to see blacksmithing or sculpting happening as CNC machining of parts for our own products or for our clients.  We make the Fern & Roby jigger and salt well on our CNC equipment from solid stainless steel bar stock, and it’s laser-engraved in-house. Someone could be welding something or sanding a table just a few feet away. Process and materials are what inspire our work and we learn something every day that informs our design. We’ve also been able to host events in the space, something our former space didn’t allow for. When you open up those bay doors and the train rolls by just feet from the shop, it’s amazing. 

If your company was a cocktail, what would its ingredients be?

Hmm. Our business and our ethos is uniquely collaborative at a large scale, meshing the interaction between other design firms, manufacturers, contractors, and our clientele. So we like to think of ourselves as a full bar, not a single cocktail. No matter what we are mixing up, we are always a layered and complex blend. And we always stock Maker’s Mark.   

What does your company do “off the clock?”

In terms of unwinding, we’re lucky to live in a state with great parks. Virginia has an amazing variety of things to do outdoors, so my weekends are usually spent with my wife, cycling or kayaking within a day’s drive of Richmond. In terms of shop life - we’re driven by process here, so we constantly challenge ourselves when we are exposed to new equipment, new materials, and new processes. Our staff is pretty diverse in what they bring to the table: our senior designer went to Virginia Tech for industrial design, but our shop manager has an MFA in painting. Our team also includes a former chef, a VCU sculpture grad, a professional cake maker/artist, a skilled motorcycle mechanic, and an art historian.

All of us pursue other interests outside the shop, which make the work we do here together even more focused and dynamic. In terms of our community—our local footprint gives us a great deal of pleasure, because it comes from having built successful longstanding relationships. It’s also incredibly important to us that we contribute to our own immediate economy—we like to give our business to the people who give us their business. 

We are strong backers of Manchester, and recently participated in the tree-planting organized by Dogtown Dish and Laura and Michael Hild, who are doing great work to bring attention and energy to the revitalization of the Hull Street corridor. 

What’s on your bar?

Ha! It would be great to have a bar here. But we have some fairly dangerous machinery, so all cocktails are off the clock! 

We provide access to our staff to all of our equipment for their own creative projects, and we also try to make sure we take the time to enjoy the final results of our work as a team. That could mean going out to a dinner with everyone and their significant others, or having a long lunch during the work week as a group, to catch up with one another and just pause and connect. We recently went as a group to take a hardhat tour of the Main Street Station renovation—it was fun and fascinating to see behind-the-scenes of such a massive project, I highly recommend checking it out!


We know you just got back from Capital Audiofest - how was that experience?

We had a great time! We were able to talk with folks about our process and our materials. We wanted to convey the authenticity of our work — we really, truly make things from raw materials. People were truly captivated by the fact that we made all these things in Richmond, VA. Like, minds were blown.

So many audio products appear as if they emerged fully-formed from a 21st-century automated facility. Our presentation stressed the handcraft and the uniqueness, and the relationships we have here in Richmond that help us deliver such cool stuff. Our staff that joined us were amazing. They have worked their tails off in the lead-up to the show, and they were so proud to talk with people about what they do. This was not a sales demo or that kind of weekend for them — it was showing and telling what it is that makes their work special. So fun!

What are you listening to this week?

This week? Radiohead’s album “Kid A”!


Photos by Alexander Kreher