Virginia is for Lovers.
That’s what the bumper sticker said on the car in front of me.
The air was muggy, and charged with electricity as the windshield wipers tried to clear the rain from a summer thunderstorm. I was sitting with Christopher Hildebrand, and Sara Moriarty in their station wagon idling at a traffic light; that’s when I noticed the slogan. As I took in the scene of strip malls, and gas stations my mind wandered past the lowland forests in the distance, and the surrounding countryside gave way in the unseeable distance to the rolling Appalachian hills of the Blue Ridge mountains made famous by John Denver so many years before. Hildebrand, and Moriarty – the driving force behind the hip, high-fidelity brand Fern & Roby – had just picked me up from the Richmond, VA airport where I had flown in from the west coast.
I was in town to take a tour of their design, and manufacturing facilities, and spend time getting to know the story behind the brand. Richmond is a city steeped in history, and one that is carefully formulating, and curating a rebirth of sorts – shaking off the weight of what it once was, and focusing instead on what it can become. Fern & Roby is navigating through similar changes: it’s a company forged from the success of a large-scale industrial design, and fabrication business – Tektonics – not the typical basement, or workshop of an ardent audiophile (although Hildebrand does develop new designs downstairs at the home he, and Moriarty built).
Hildebrand says he likes to get his hands dirty with work, especially with materials like marble, steel, aluminum, and bronze – to name a few of the staples that have left their mark on his well-worn fingers, and palms – but it’s wood that seems to inspire the most animated conversation from him when discussing Fern & Roby’s lineup of turntables, speakers, furniture, and new phono preamplifier – the Maverick. Like the slow waters of the nearby James River, there’s a deep current of connection to raw materials underlying conversations about high fidelity design with Hildebrand. An easygoing manner, and connection to the old ways of creating products by hand, he can talk in great detail about casting bronze, or using a forge, as well as carving marble or releasing the shapes of his Beam speakers from massive slabs of local timber. There’s a dedication to aesthetic value, and adhering to a culturally-enriched manufacturing précis in every component he creates, and builds himself, or in conjunction with companies like Linear Tube Audio, whom he works with on amplification chassis design for their ZOTL line.
Hildebrand started Tektonics in his late twenties after realizing he wanted to do as much of the local artisnal manufacturing work as his small, dedicated staff could handle. “Tektonics has always been about the principles, and care, and passion that we have for craft,“ said Hildebrand. “We’ve been in business now for 15 years, and we just said ‘yes’ to so many different kinds of challenges, and requests to solve different kinds of problems that we became immensely capable doing cabinetry, machinery design, machining, woodworking, metal fabrication – helping people with product design. [We’re] integrating graphics, and branding into millwork for corporate, and commercial spaces, designing, and building displays for museums, getting commissions to do sculptures – Tektonics is a company that really resides where the rubber meets the road in the design, and contracting world. “We are responsible for delivering the goods on an idea.”
It was while in the whirlwind of growing Tektonics into a viable, self-sustaining enterprise that Hildebrand found himself escaping the stresses of running his company by listening more, and more to music. He quickly realized his mp3 collection, and meagre playback system was not cutting it though. Being an artist, and designer he took it upon himself to remedy the situation in-house. One of his first designs was the Cube speaker, which quickly led him down a rabbit-hole of inspiration, and began his introduction into the world of hifi electronic engineering, and design.
“Fern & Roby has been this… canvas for me to paint on to explore the things that I’m passionate about, and it’s given me the opportunity to put music back into my life in a huge way,” Hildebrand said. “Which has made me a much happier person.” He added that Fern & Roby most likely wouldn’t have existed without his experience as a professional with Tektonics. “I think our goals, and opportunities with Fern & Roby are the real future of our company. It really is the bigger business opportunity.”
But another key factor to the company’s success is Sara Moriarty, who is not only Hildebrand’s partner in life, but his closest partner in collaboration with curating what Fern & Roby is as a company. Visiting the duo’s home they designed, and built together from the ground up a number of years ago is a window into how the brand positioned itself as a lifestyle niche within the structure of the high-fidelity marketplace. The house is located on a wooded hilltop just a few minutes drive from the 19th-century, colonnaded estates of old Richmond, and as much as the design of the home fits into the vibe of the area, it also stands apart with architectural insouciance – much the way Fern & Roby designs defy easy description. Fern & Roby looks different from every other piece of gear out there because it is different, and that’s no accident, it’s by design.
Speaking with the couple about building their home, one gathers that it not only helped codify their shared sense of art-folk aesthetic, and somewhat indefinable, but timeless style, it seemed to have cemented how the growing company visually, and practically positioned its values. Whether it’s the cute, chunky Cube speakers, the gorgeous, and tactile Beam loudspeakers, the elegant Montrose, or imposing Tredegar turntables, the focus is in fusing form, and function. “I think people like seeing actual, physical, organic material,” said Moriarty. “You know? They’re like ‘How did you make this?’” Questions like ‘What is is this made out of? Is this actual, real wood? How do you reclaim wood, and what kind of building did it come out of are not uncommon according to Moriarty. She said that people want to know how you make the pattern to cast something in a foundry, since many don’t realize that foundries still exist locally.
Located in an aging industrial zone, dominated by a massive beam-bridge factory next to the old warehouse that contains the offices, and manufacturing spaces for both Tektonics, and Fern & Roby, you feel like you’ve gone back in time 50 years. Inside, the handmade-feel the space is imbued with is contagious. You just want to grab a chunk of wood, or metal, and start realizing an object like the people working there are all engaged in doing. The artisanal craftsmanship being practiced is obvious everywhere you look as piles of turntable chassis carefully sit on one shelf, electronics parts neatly stored in drawers, and bins are on another, giant reclaimed wood slabs sit silently on pallets waiting to be cut, and shaped by both machine, and hand – a massive 20-foot Lord of The Rings-style metal-beam gate under construction squats amid everything with welding sparks careening down off of it – advanced computer-aided machinery whirs, and screams as metal billets succumb to hardened-steal bits, and blades in the process of creating complex shapes for a variety of products Tektonics is tasked with manufacturing along with the smaller pieces destined for Fern & Roby’s lineup.
Jesse Brown not only runs the firm’s social media, and online presence, but builds turntables like the Montrose, and Tredegar by hand. in fact, most staff do so much crossover work, titles don’t really apply. Brown intoned the two companies are entwined, but that Fern & Roby is helping to push boundaries these days. He also touched on the unique cachet the brand enjoys. “We’re not trying to fit in any particular place, we’re just trying to make something really cool, work really well,” said Brown.
Whether you speak with Brown or Michael Smith, Alex Snyder, Trey Squares, Clark Brummet or Luke Smith – all the staff share similar sentiments regarding the craft they’re engaged in; that it’s more a labour of love, and about doing something meaningful, and that has impact. When pushed they say they’re involved in building what are really heirloom products; handcrafted goods that can be passed own from generation to generation.
Looking back on the time with the people of Fern & Roby you realize that this is not about pushing audio products out for consumption, what this is really about is constructing emotional connections to music with individuals through high fidelity electronics.
I guess Virginia really is for lovers.