Spring 2020 Issue

Building a Sustainable World

Fred Kukelhaus ’05 furnishes innovative spaces

By Jack Ehlenberger '20

When designing a new space on campus,there are numerous elements to consider — what is the purpose of the space? Who will use it? How big should it be? What kind of furniture should it have?

When designing the new Entrepreneurship Hub at Tribe Square, William & Mary staff turned to Fred Kukelhaus ’05, the co-founder of Hugo & Hoby, to answer that last question. An extension of the Alan B. Miller Entrepreneurship Center, the hub will support students from all disciplines interested in developing startups and their business acumen. The space needed original, well-made furniture, particularly for the student workspace.

Hugo & Hoby is a furniture company focused on craftmanship and sustainability. It is a design and fabrication resource for architects and interior designers in the commercial realm that have a need for unique, well-made furniture.

Kukelhaus’ company not only provided furniture for the Hub, it will also provide furnishings for the new Institute for Integrative Conservation, a cross-disciplinary institute focused on global conservation and sustainability challenges. Its facility is set to open in 2020.

Creating the Vision

Originally, Kukelhaus envisioned his company as a competitor to the likes of Ikea and Wayfair; it would provide affordable, flat-packed furniture built with an eye towards sustainability and local manufacturing.

“We thought all these customers were going to come knocking down our door because we’re not only beautiful, but sustainably and locally made,” he says.


He quickly realized his vision wouldn’t work. “To do that correctly is possible,” Kukelhaus says, “but for many reasons it’s just not our market, it’s not what we’re set up to do.”

Almost by accident he found a new role for Hugo & Hoby. While networking in Northern Virginia, Kukelhaus realized Hugo & Hoby could build things for businesses and developers. Its first client in this industry was Common, a shared living condominium company.

“By the beginning of 2017, we had discovered a need in the commercial world for unique, beautifully done furniture,” he says. “Over the last three years, we have positioned ourselves as the response to that need.”

Looking Beyond the Bottom Line

One of the hallmarks of Hugo & Hoby is its reliance on local manufacturers to produce their custom designs.

“A big part of what we do is work within our network to build things as locally as possible to where the project is happening,” Kukelhaus says. “It’s really gratifying to work with small-scale, local partners because, in a lot of cases, our collaboration allows them to grow.”

Kukelhaus has also incorporated his passion for the environment into Hugo & Hoby.

Since its inception, Hugo & Hoby has been a member of 1% for the Planet, businesses committed to donating 1% of their revenues to environmental causes. Hugo & Hoby donates its 1% to plant trees, which is an important cause in a business that uses a lot of wood.

So far, Hugo & Hoby has helped plant more than 35,000 trees and hopes to plant another 10,000 in 2020.

The company also tries to save material from the waste stream by using reclaimed or salvaged wood. Recently, they salvaged 200-year-old beams from a church in Boston scheduled for destruction and used them in a Patagonia store.

“We have a little tagline that really captures the core idea behind Hugo & Hoby: how you make something is just as important as what you make,” says Kukelhaus.

Finding His Way

Although he has turned Hugo & Hoby into a thriving company, as an international relations major at William & Mary, Kukelhaus did not have the same interest in business or entrepreneurship that he does now. William & Mary prepared Kukelhaus for his future business endeavors, however, by giving him opportunities to explore his interests and develop the values that guide his life.

Green Team: Kukelhaus and the Tribe Desk team.

“The thing that W&M really taught me,” he says, “is the importance of a strong community and surrounding yourself with people who are not only smarter and better than you at certain things, but also philosophically aligned with you in terms of values.”

After graduating from William & Mary, Kukelhaus’ entrepreneurial spirit began to appear. While working as a consultant in D.C., Kukelhaus developed a plan to start his own business.

“I didn’t know what the business would be, but I knew I wanted to learn how to build a business that was about more than just profits,” he says. “I wanted it to help people in local communities while also being good for the environment.”

Kukelhaus wanted a better understanding of how sustainability worked, so he got a master’s degree in environmental engineering from Johns Hopkins University.

Then, wanting to know more about the business side of things, he got his MBA from the Yale School of Management, where he met his business partner, Ben Young.

“I’m probably the only person in the world to get an engineering and business degree to become a carpenter,” he says.

A Source of Inspiration

While at Yale, Kukelhaus lived in a large Victorian house and struggled to come up with adequate furnishings. He was bothered by the sustainability issues of furnishing his home with cheap, poorly made store-bought furniture.

“It bugged me because I knew when I left in two years, it would just end up on the curb,” he says.

So, Kukelhaus decided to make his own desk.

“For the first few weeks of school,” he says, “I would race back home in between classes and put in a few minutes of work on the desk.”

Later, Kukelhaus and his roommates decided to build furniture for the whole house. When visitors would come to Kukelhaus’ house, they would comment on the furniture and express interest in purchasing similar pieces.

“That was the first time I really had any idea about what kind of business I wanted to start,” he says.

He credits two things that helped guide him through his life: persistence and leading with his values.

“I think William & Mary is one of those great institutions that reinforces those two things over and over again through its programs,” he says. “I am very grateful for that.”

The Tribe Desk

For William & Mary’s new Entrepreneurship Hub, Hugo & Hoby built the “Tribe Desk.”

“Architects and designers have a tendency to focus on the building itself, but often don’t pay much attention to the furniture inside it,” Kukelhaus says. “But as student, if you use that desk every single day, the design behind it starts to matter.”

Hugo & Hoby’s idea behind the Tribe Desk was to build a next-generation cubicle.

“We wanted to build something that encouraged entrepreneurs to talk and interact with one another,” says Kukelhaus, “but also allowed people to have their own time and really buckle down when they wanted to.”

Kukelhaus also sought to encompass William & Mary’s values in the design.

“I really like the name Tribe Desk,” he says, “because it can stand alone, but it looks much stronger together, like the W&M community.”