Fern & Roby, in Richmond, VA, makes beautiful household pieces both large (tables from reclaimed wood) and small (a minimalist, aluminum salt cellar), plus gorgeous audio equipment that will add to your living room’s aesthetic, instead of detracting from it. They make as much as possible from recycled or reclaimed materials, and everything is manufactured right in Virginia.
Fern & Roby is an offshoot of the industrial design firm Tektonics Design Group, a pet project of Christopher Hildebrand and Sara Moriarty. “About six years ago, Sara and I built a house and we started thinking about what furniture we wanted,” Chris says. “I started realize that some of my favorite projects at Tektonics was making furniture for clients. Our aesthetic is a mix of old, new, recycled, up cycled, thrifted pieces that might have little dings and flaws; hand-me-down items, family items, a sort of cultivated eclecticism.” That aesthetic now extends to Fern & Roby products, which look like they could have been dug out of a well-kept barn or machine shop. “Just the industrial process of fabricating a cast iron turntable, or the process we use to make a speaker out of reclaimed, 100-year- pine beams – there are defects that we want to have,” he says.
“We keep as much as we can local, we work with a local foundry, OK foundry,” Sara says. “He’s a friend and fourth-generation owner, so we can cast locally. We’re pretty proud of the fact that we make things here. The place where we salvage heart pine is a few blocks away too.”
“I’ve been working with clients for years and have been really unhappy with the waste and use of material, and it felt really good to design things that came from salvaged and recycled materials, salvaging scrap and turning it into a new product,” Chris says. “The idea is to embrace that as much as possible. The other thing I started doing when we make furniture is sawing trees that were felled during hurricane and storms here in Virginia. There are some challenges,” Chris tells me when I ask if he wants to increase the salvaged and recycled content of their products. “With the beam speakers, we have to be really selective about the wood we choose so it doesn’t have defects that fight with the audio requirements.”
When I expressed surprise that some of the design direction came from Sara, when a lot of it looks very haute-masculine, she conceded, “There’s definitely a muscular quality, because the pieces are big and heavy. They’re not highly polished or veneered. But the speakers actually came from me not wanting ugly black plastic stuff in the house. There’s a lot of audio stuff that is like something from 2001. It’s very unapproachable and unappealing. We’ve had a lot of interest from women, they’re tagging their partners on Instagram saying, ‘I would like this in the house.'”
Their offerings are eclectic, to say the least. But they let themselves be guided by their interests, instead of market research. “I’m really wanting to push toward some lighting,” Chris says. “Probably because there’s some places in my house where I’m thinking about lighting. Sometimes it’s as simple as being inspired by things we see. We spend a lot of time thrifting and driving around. I spend a lot of time thinking about what would be a good thing to design that our machines could make. The jigger and and salt well were all influenced by that. I was looking at the lathe and thinking, I could turn an object, what could I make with that? Sara and I both love cooking, so the salt well would be great to make.”
Now Fern & Roby has moved into high-end audiophile equipment, like wooden speakers, and a cast iron and bronze turntable. Not that Chris is an audiophile. He just looked at the shape of a speaker, and thought it would be fun to replicate. “The very first speaker I made was just terrible sounding,” he says. “I got really excited about the idea, designed it on the fly, I realized how bad it sounded and that I need to get some help. The beam speakers were a year-and-a-half process. We subjected it to a bunch of auditions with people who are really picky. I approached it from the design and aesthetics viewpoint, but I pushed it toward being really successful acoustically.” When his friend at the foundry, Jaime, wanted to make a turntable, and Chris went with it. Two years later, he has this beauty. “That’s been part of the learning process, is what, does make a really good acoustic playback experience?”
Oh, so it looks pricey? You have no idea, as I found out when I put the question to my DJ friends and realized turntables can cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. “This turntable in some companies might be a $15,000 table,” Chris says. “We wanted it to be affordable, even if you have to save your pennies.”
“I’ve heard so many times over the years that American manufacturing is dead,” Chris says. “I’ve been working at making things since I was 16, and I’ve always felt that was wrong. People want to consume things that are cheap, and I’ve always swum against that trend. Our business is about working with locally sourced materials, and working with people that value that. We’re craftsmen and designers, and Fern & Roby was born out of that to make things we were really fascinated with.”