The founder of Henrybuilt, a pioneering kitchen systems and furniture production powerhouse founded in Seattle in 2001, shares his thoughts on creativity, collaboration and modern manufacturing on the eve of a new Urban Electric installment in Henrybuilt’s New York City showroom.
Let's start with the backstory and the roots of Henrybuilt.
The best place to start is when I was twelve years old, working with my grandfather on the farm in the summers. Henry was a jack of all trades—a farmer, a carpenter, a builder—and he taught me so much. When you grow up on a farm, you have to do everything. I didn't really think so much about it at the time—it was more about doing work and having fun doing it. And the aspects of it that really stuck with me, the building and controlling of environments were kind of infectious.
Inspiration struck early for you but the route from there to where you are now was fairly circuitous, right?
On our website, there's this story of how Henry asked me at one point what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I said, I want to be like you and do what you’re doing. And he said, ‘Oh, no. You don’t want to do that. You’re going to be a doctor or lawyer, wear a suit, think about stuff.’ I was actually kind of offended. Like, what do you mean? You don't think I'm good enough to do what you’ve done?
During college, I bounced around a bit. I transferred from Wake Forest to the University of Colorado to study environmental design, but I found it boring. I was a white water river guide in West Virginia. I took up rock climbing. I got certified in welding and worked in oil fields for a few years. Eventually, I went back to school and enrolled in an art program where I got a painting degree. That was much more interesting to me, way more fluid than architecture. I even started a little magazine called Sticks and Stones. That got me really interested in publishing, so the minute I graduated, I moved to New York and went to work in book and magazine publishing.
Ok, we’re a long way from Henrybuilt here...
Well…the art director at Henry Holt Publishing heard I had an art degree and asked me to design some book covers after-hours, which led to other freelance work for publishers like Simon & Schuster, which then led to a job helping create art and visual books for Marquand Editions in Seattle. I worked there for four years before venturing into the tech world as the Design Director for a small company owned by Bill Gates (now Corbis) — as part of a team prototyping what the broadband web would be like in the future. But all along I never stopped wanting to create physical things. In New York, a friend’s husband was a cabinet maker in Brooklyn, and I would just go and help him out on Saturdays. I did that for about a year, and I built my own furniture, carrying sticks of wood on the subway until we moved to the West Coast.
And then after a couple of other digital space ventures, you launched Henrybuilt in 2001. How do you go from balancing artistry to balancing industry and tech to balancing artisanship?
The making of content, the making of software, the making of furniture—they’re not that different. In the end, they're all just different forms of the same kind of creative energy. I will say, however, that it’s really hard to articulate what we do at Henrybuilt in words. It's easier to show it, to demonstrate it, and technology is becoming high-touch enough to make that possible from afar, too, which is great. Even from afar, it brings people much closer to the objects than it used to. To merge all of that stuff, to have the artistry and technology and artisanship be almost indiscernible, where one starts and another one stops, drives me from an emotional point of view—not necessarily in the sense of putting programming into wood, but plays a part in the client experience.
You’re a jack of all trades, just like Henry. Henry 2.0?
Hah! Yeah, I guess.
How would Henry fit into today's Henrybuilt? What would his title be?
Yes. But he wouldn't say anything.
What would he think about what you’ve created in his name? How would he feel?
He would be happy. He was pretty much always happy when he was working. He would probably downplay the significance of anything...he might not even blink. Which would be interesting to see. I wish he were here.
And family continues to be a huge part of the business for you still, right?
Yes. Our kids have all worked in the company growing up. Our oldest, Max, turned down a job at Apple a couple of years ago to build a software group within Henrybuilt. It’s very nice having him here. He has a team of five, and they're doing amazing work that’s enabling us to do things we wouldn’t otherwise be able to. It’s really exciting to see.
But the ‘family’ of people who have built the company together is also really important. I think a lot about how we can work together to make sure that the company continues to grow in ways that provides more opportunities for all of them and can thrive in the long run.
In the meantime, partnerships like “Like Minds” feel a bit like an extension of that, working with people like Urban Electric who share a lot of the same values. I really want to get past the notion of one style, that sense that a company or brand of a company has to be based on that, because we—and you all—are deeper than that. Together, we both have our core things that come through, but the combination reveals something bigger about what’s right for a unique space or environment. And seeing Henrybuilt and Urban Electric together in our New York showroom should reflect that in a way that’s pretty cool for everyone.