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Made in Manchester: Meet Fern & Roby

America used to make things. RVA used to make things. And when things were made in RVA, there’s a strong chance it was made in Manchester.

There is special glory in the process of making. Nothing more beautiful, more gratifying, more rewarding than crafting something out of wood and metal. But America forgot how to dream, design, forge, and shape beautiful things-things that inspire…things made to last…things that touch the soul.

Perhaps we simply lost interest as technology took the beauty out of the craft, the art of making. Regardless, we once had style. We used to have passion. We were inspired. And it showed in the things we made.

Luckily, we are starting to remember the satisfaction in making great things. And there is a man in Manchester who certainly hasn’t forgotten. And that man has found a wonderfully strong, smart, entrepreneurial woman as a wife and partner. They are a team…and they are killing it in Manchester. We are pleased to have the privilege to introduce you to Manchester’s very own: Fern & Roby.

Christopher Hildebrand and Sara Moriarty are the owner/operators for Fern & Roby and their sister company Tektonics Design Group. Located in an old warehouse in Manchester’s industrial sector at 702 E 4th Street, the couple make beautiful things.

We thought you’d like to hear their story. So we asked Christopher a few questions. Here is what he had to say…

Christopher and Sara_Rob Bratney photo

M: When was Fern & Roby started?

C: I started F&R with my wife Sara in 2013 as a pressure relief valve from the day-to-day operations of our industrial design and manufacturing firm Tektonics Design Group. As Tektonics grew, my role moved away from my training in fine art and craft and into design, general management, and business development. My job evolved into working with spreadsheets and designing with CAD/CAM software as opposed to physically being in the shop, which I missed. So getting back to my roots and building furniture for Fern & Roby became an avenue to start implementing my own ideas and reconnect with the pleasure of making something from scratch.

M: What is Fern & Roby?

C: Fern & Roby is a product line we created to design and make tools for making life better. 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.

Manchester table_Tood Wright PhotographyWe make furniture, audio components, tables, desks, small wares. They all have a place in our lives. We began with tables, as we consider them to be one of the most essential tools for living—a table can be a work surface or a place to collaborate with others—a table is a place to commune, socialize and dine with friends and family. We have added audio to the line as well—we have two kinds of speakers, several amplifiers, and a turntable available. 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 can enhance experience.

Beam Speakers_Todd Wright PhotographyOur 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 and lifespan—these things have a narrative.

M: How does Fern & Roby tie into your other business lines?

C: Tektonics’ core business has traditionally involved applying our deep knowledge of materials and processes toward implementing and executing the ideas of other designers—our experience and grasp of means and methods allow us to manufacture the best end product, whether it’s a public sculpture or a custom handrail system for a corporate client or parts for bridge infrastructure. We have always been problem solvers. I wanted to bring that expertise to something more personal, and Fern & Roby is the result.

Turntable with Shroeder Arm_Todd Wright PhotographyFern & Roby operates from within Tektonics– our 20,000 square foot shop houses our design studio, metal fabrication shop, CNC machine shop and woodworking shop. The building was built in the 1930s by the Army Corps of Engineers and has 8,000 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.

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.

M: Can you tell us a little more about Tektonics?

C: My former business partner Hinmaton Hisler and I started the firm in 2003—we both have backgrounds in traditional blacksmithing and welding and sculpting, and had spent years working in all the trades that support architects and interior designers. We started the firm in Connecticut, but knew we wanted to relocate away from where we were– we knew a few people down here and it seemed like a good place to land. Richmond is the perfect-sized city in terms of meeting people and making business as well as personal connections.

In September 2003 (just before Hurricane Isabel hit), we moved into the Aragon Coffee Building, in the space now occupied by Blue Bee Cidery, on 7th Street. Manchester had already started to attract a small community of designers and makers—there was plenty of warehouse space and creative people were all around us. But Manchester was quite a different place and was still a ways away from any development–the neighborhood was still intensely industrial. The Reynolds plant was basically in our shop’s backyard, and was still operational. Of course that whole facility has been razed now, opening up the view (and development opportunities). But back then we felt like homesteaders—we lived in our very affordable shop space with our dogs, working all day and drinking beer and talking about the future at night. We loved Manchester and are pleased to have found a permanent home for the business here.

M: What are you most proud of in terms of accomplishments for Fern & Roby?

C: I am proud to make things in America. It’s not easy. People don’t always understand it, frankly. I came of age at a time when shop class was on the decline and it has in the past 20 years become essentially extinct, which is a shame. There is somewhat of a disdain for so-called “blue collar” jobs in the United States but manufacturing is a big part of our American DNA. Learning how to make something, whether it’s an industrial fastener or a fine piece of furniture, requires a huge amount of intellect, self-control, and dedication. I have found that my experiences working as a craftsman has been the single biggest influence in my life as a designer. But my highest achievement is learning how to run a business well that also employs a great team of talented people who love what they do.

Christopher in Shop_Todd Wright Photography

M: What has been your biggest challenge for Fern & Roby?

C: We live in a culture where goods are now incredibly cheap and frankly are made to be disposable. Challenging people to understand the value of long-lasting goods and commit to investing in things that are responsibly sourced and made in America hasn’t always been easy.

M: Why did you select Manchester?

C: It kind of picked us—we came here and we’ve never left. The buildings and infrastructure have always supported industry and manufacturing, and we wanted to be part of that energy. We named the Fern & Roby Manchester table after the neighborhood—Manchester has been a center of industrial activity for hundreds of years due to the proximity to the river and the trains. The train goes by at least a couple times a day only a couple of dozen yards away from our space, and right next door our neighbor is busy making plate girders for America’s bridges. It is an inspiring space to work, and we’re part of a city full of great designers and makers.

After we outgrew the Aragon Coffee Building space, we were in a bigger space in the Plant One building at 5th and Stockton for 7 years. When it was clear that the building was going to be turned into apartments, we knew we needed to move. We considered moving to Scotts Addition, but we would have missed Manchester. All of our colleagues and peers are here—the neighborhood is full of machine shops and metal fabrication and finishing shops, and we’re in and out of them constantly. We decided to make the leap and buy a building, because we want to be here forever.

Tektonics_Rob Bratney photo

Our local footprint in Manchester 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. To give an example–Tektonics has an important client, O.K Foundry, just 4 blocks away from us here in Manchester. They are a 4th-generation owned family business, still doing their thing. We’ve done work for them for years, designing and fabricating some of their foundry tooling, which are the patterns they use to make their castings. O.K. Foundry is also where we cast all of the bases for our Fern & Roby tables—Manchester, Granville and Coventry table bases were created once Tektonics developed the ability to design and fabricate foundry tooling, which are the patterns foundries use to make castings.

Another important local relationship is with E. T. Moore, where we source heart pine for of the tabletops as well as the Beam and Cube speakers. E.T. Moore (another family-owned business) is just south of the Maury Cemetery, on the other side of Commerce from us, so part of the greater Manchester landscape. Going to a 150,000 sq ft warehouse of reclaimed heart pine beams and choosing the ones we want is pretty cool–it would be all but impossible to derive the same kind of satisfaction from managing from afar the production of our line overseas, and the product just wouldn’t be the same. We are creating something that is originating and being distributed from Richmond. It just wouldn’t make any sense for it to be shipped to us from across the planet so we can sell it for less.

M: What’s next for Fern & Roby?

C: We are focused on finding a property to develop as a showroom and retail space in Richmond. It’s important for people to see the pieces up close, where they can touch them and hear them, in the case of the audio components. A showroom would also allow us to offer gallery space to the creative community we have here in town. We are fortunate to have many talented friends who are artists, and we would love to showcase and feature their work alongside ours.

And lighting!!! We’re working on designs for lighting, so we’re very excited about that.

M: Anything else you would like to share?

C: We believe in creating a great professional experience for ourselves and our staff, which means creating a good standard of living for everyone in the business. We could not guarantee what the conditions are in factories managed overseas, in places too remote for us to clearly understand how those businesses are run and how their employees are treated. We could not do what we do without the people who work for and with us on everything we do.

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