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Designer Interview: Scott Hudson of Henrybuilt

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A series of to-the-point interviews with local developers, architects, designers, and movers and shakers. This week: Scott Hudson, Founder and CEO of Henrybuilt. Thoughts on who we should talk to next? Email us at seattle@curbed.com and let us know.
How did Henrybuilt come about in the first place?
Scott Hudson: My grandfather’s name was Henry. He was a builder and cabinetmaker. I worked for him in the summers through middle and high school. He was a great man and a great role model and really instilled in me a love of making useful things.

I also loved publishing and software and spent 15 years in those fields. Finally, I had an opportunity to play around with the idea of starting a company that combined the spirit my grandfather brought to his work with industrial design, using the internet to reach a national market. It was all driven by the feeling that there should be something ‘there’ that wasn’t. There is a kind of magic that happens when you live with truly good things and there were a few big ‘holes’ when it came to what was available for the home, in my opinion.

We started with furniture, and soon realized there was a significant gap in the kitchen market. So we focused on combining the advantages of a systems approach to the design of a kitchen with a very high level of craft and customization. The best of the European kitchens systems, take Bulthaup for example, are amazing combinations of design and functionality, but they often lack warmth and can be rigid and difficult to integrate into a lot of architectural situations. They can also be very expensive relative to the level of craft and durability some of them offer. And yet they have – up until now - set the standard in terms of a holistic solution to a significant piece of the home. We are focused on achieving the ideal blend of system and craft and customization.

What would you say is the design aesthetic you shoot for with Henrybuilt?
SH: Highly refined but approachable – and optimized for use. No novelty. Simple and distilled. A blend of warm and technical with each of those in the right place.

Who are you designing for? What kind of buyer comes in to order a system?
SH: People who are really involved in their homes. People who really use their kitchens, but want to live with a certain level of aesthetic refinement. People who are very focused on quality – not just craft – but total product quality. If someone is interested in flash or novelty, they don’t come to Henrybuilt. There are plenty of European system companies that do that. But there is a lot of variety among our clients. If we made a poster of thumbnail images of all the homes Henrybuilt has had the good fortune to work within – which is something we’ve always talked about doing – you’d be shocked at the variety.

How did Viola Park come about?
SH: Henrybuilt is a unique combination of product and service, and even at a high price – a great value. But many people who are attracted to Henrybuilt can't afford to become Henrybuilt clients. The housing downturn underscores that of course.

Viola Park was conceived as a way to offer a product with great design and excellent
quality that can be purchased in a simple, straightforward way. We are taking what we’ve learned from designing hundreds of Henrybuilt kitchens, editing it down, and offering a distilled line. Our goal, which you can get a glimpse of in the configuration tool section on our website, is to offer whole kitchen designs – not parts but fully integrated layouts – and enable the buyer to refine the configuration to fit their home without eroding design integrity. By automating this process, we keep prices lower and quality higher, including design quality.

Do you have any projects that were particularly exciting to be a part of?
SH: Some of my favorite projects are those where the homeowner stretched in some way, maybe financially, maybe aesthetically, to have a Henrybuilt kitchen and then are totally in love with the end result. The most excitement comes from any kitchen that is used hard and really loved. Giving a client something that gives back to them everyday is really exciting. There are also some projects that are really exciting because they are so amazing from an architectural standpoint and the people are so interesting. We are working on a house in Mexico City for a film maker, with an architect from Chile. The house is 100% formed concrete. We have an interesting project in Belgium. And there are so many exciting clients – and buildings to work within in New York City, where we have a showroom and do a lot of business.

Tell us a little bit about local sourcing.
SH: It's both wonderful and challenging. There are some remarkable craftspeople here and we love working with them. On the other hand, the industry is really a cottage industry. It lacks the kind of sophisticated mid-sized manufacturing corporations that can afford to develop the technology and skills – and maintain them - required to compete with the best work done in Europe. We are constantly pushing for something that is difficult to achieve with local, or even U.S. resources – for example, levels of stainless steel fabrication, or special finishes, or innovative approaches to panel manufacturing. But the American way of building is still focused on ‘custom’. Custom has its charms and its place, but in order to attain the kind of sustainable and more pervasive product quality in a house that we have attained with automobiles, or bicycles, or Apple computers, we need to create networks of reasonably good-sized companies that can produce more distinctive products at higher volume. As a business community we need to be able to ask what it takes to create truly amazing things and build an infrastructure to turn that into real industry – which would be a great thing for our economy.

What's one design trend you love right now and one you wish would just go away?
I like that great design is helping more people get excited about riding bicycles. And it will be a good day when the illusions of ‘green building’ is dead and gone and we get back to real sustainability.

What's a dream project? Any houses, businesses, or spaces you're dying to get your hands on?
I would love to find a great developer partner and develop a series of very small Henrybuilt homes. We also have a number of ideas for new companies that we would like to spin out of Henrybuilt when the time is right.

· HenryBuilt
· Viola Park