Nothing makes us happier then seeing and supporting all the local talent and creativity in RVA. Christopher Hildebrand, the man behind Fern & Roby, is fascinated with making and building things and shares our interests on simplistic, locally-made design. Find out how he became interested in working with all the different materials he works with today.
Q: Tell us about how you came to Richmond and how you ended up doing what you do.
A: I was born in Chicago but grew up in Colorado. Studying art at a small liberal arts college in Indiana, I was always fascinated by the materials and the processes that are involved in making and building things. After graduating I worked as a welder and metal fabricator, then trained in traditional blacksmithing. After spending a year in Italy learning how to carve marble, I came back to the US, relocating to the East Coast to run a foundry in Connecticut, and then continued with fabrication and design in other capacities. After years spent working for others, my business partner Hinmaton and I started our own design-build firm, Tektonics Design Group, and then moved down to Richmond in 2003. We both met our wives here, and there is a strong collaborative community here that has made space for us, which we are grateful for.
Q: What kind of projects does your firm work on?
A: Tektonics has extremely diverse and expansive capabilities, meaning we get to do a lot of interesting stuff—there’s always something different, and we are constantly innovating our methods and practices. We’re a machine shop, a wood shop, an industrial design firm, and a prototyping studio, as well as a furniture maker and specialty bicycle manufacturer. We use a number of highly powerful CAD platforms, and this gives us the capability to not only design something, but also walk into our shop and produce it. For some clients, we make the same part for them over and over, and that’s great. For other clients, it may take several years for the project to move from the design phase into prototyping and then production. We’ve worked with architectural clients to produce custom ornamental metal packages, universities to produce public sculpture, foundries to produce specialized tooling for their castings, Fortune 500 companies to make custom furniture packages, as well as local businesses and entrepreneurs to help them develop their products. A recent project tied together many of these threads—we worked with the First Freedom Center, in conjunction with the developers of the new Marriot going up at the corner of 14th and E. Cary Streets, to design and build a 27-foot tall cast-bronze spire commemorating the site of the enacting of the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was drafted by Jefferson and was the model for the First Amendment.
Q: How did Fern & Roby start?
A: After years of designing and making things for other people according to their specifications, both my business partner and I needed an outlet and pressure relief valve. He started Stijl Cycles, a custom frame-building business. I was drawn toward furniture-making, having just built a house with my wife and having made a few pieces that drew upon some ideas I’d been thinking about for a while. Fern & Roby (I named the company after my grandmothers) was borne out of all that I’d learned building Tektonics. The Fern & Roby line includes tables, benches, small machined hard wares for the home, as well as the audio line of speakers. We make the pieces ourselves in the shop, using salvaged wood and custom castings of our own design, and we use our advanced machining equipment to make the smaller metal items.
Q: What inspired you to make the speakers?
A: Honestly, my wife and I couldn’t find anything that suited our taste and style, so out of frustration I decided to try to make something myself! We built our house six years ago —it’s light and open with lots of wood and exposed metal elements—a good description might be an industrial cottage. We want things in our home to have a warmth and history to them, while at the same time have a modern sensibility. So we were somewhat turned off by the lack of warmth in the modern speaker aesthetic—cold black glossy plastic-ness. We had tons of salvaged heart pine beams lying around the shop, and I went through several prototypes in the process of development, eventually settling on the Cube bookshelf speaker, and the Beam tower full-range speaker.
Q: Would you describe yourself as an audiophile? How did you work to get the audio side of things right?
A: While my wife and I would not describe ourselves as audiophiles of the highest order, listening to music is a big part of our domestic experience together, and it was important to us to end up with something not only beautiful, but that also delivered the goods, audio-wise. I have a deep love of music and grew up playing instruments with family and friends. For this project, however, I needed specialized guidance, so I turned to a friend, Tim Stinson of Luminous Audio. Tim’s business is based in Richmond but is recognized nationally for quality sound and audio components. He helped us design and build the cross-over network for our two-way speaker, and gave us crucial guidance about making a product that satisfy an audiophile’s desire for a quality listening experience. The specs are on our website, and the speakers recently got rave reviews at the Capital Audiofest in DC in July. But at our heart we are a local RVA business, so we’re very pleased to have the opportunity to display them at LaDIFF!