On a cold and drizzly autumn day, the design studio at Hubbardton Forge in Castleton, Vermont, is filled with bright ideas. The longtime design director at the lighting manufacturer, David Kitts, and his four-person team are developing up to 80 new products — lamps, sconces, pendants, chandeliers — for a January 2018 roll-out.
Today, he’s working on a starburst-style pendant that will integrate Hubbardton’s familiar wrought iron with hand-blown glass from another well-known Vermont company, Simon Pearce, based in Quechee. Using metal rods forged by the company’s modern-day blacksmiths, he’s wielding duct tape to assemble a prototype that he’ll revise a half-dozen times before settling on a final design.
“At Hubbardton Forge, everything is under one roof — design, engineering, manufacturing, sales and marketing, management,” Kitts says. From shipping clerks to CEO Bob Dillon, all 250 full-time employees work in an unassuming 117,000-square-foot facility in this quiet town in Rutland County.
“That’s very unusual in the lighting industry,” says Kitts. “Most of our competitors manufacture their products overseas. It allows us to come up with a design and develop a prototype very quickly, and easily tweak a design multiple times to get it just right.”
Getting it right has been a Hubbardton Forge hallmark since the company was founded by two University of Vermont graduates in 1974. George Chandler and Reed Hampton met in a sculpting class during senior year and launched their business in a 19th-century barn, making hand-forged candlesticks, fireplace screens, and accessories. Two years later, a catalog company requested a lamp — and then ordered 1,000 more.
Over four decades, the company has grown steadily, exponentially expanding its product line, branching out from the classic Hubbardton Forge look, defined by traditional references (think hammered steel, wrought-iron leaves, twisted baskets, and elegant Colonial homes), to embrace a contemporary vibe. In January 2017, after several years of top-secret development, the company unveiled two distinct new lines: Synchronicity, which incorporates crystal in an understated way that still delivers a bit of bling, and Vermont Modern, a more-affordable category with clean, sharp lines and brighter powder-coat finishes (including red and aqua).
As the company broadens its product base, it’s incorporating new materials and technologies. Many pieces in the Synchronicity line, for example, use Swarovski’s new Strass Wave Cut crystal that’s smooth rather than faceted and presented in a setting that evokes a gemstone. Another fixture, The Shard, features poured-glass blocks embedded with fragments of gray-tinted glass that create a beautiful reflection. The best-selling Zephyr combines a flowing piece of structural steel that holds a curved band of clear acrylic that, using patented technology, has been etched with a precise pattern of dots that draws the LED light through the plastic.
“The marriage between forward-thinking design and a handcrafted, hand-forged quality really helps Hubbardton Forge to stand out,” says Rich Arentzen, co-owner of AO Glass, a production studio in Burlington, Vermont, that provides Hubbardton with handblown glass. “There are certainly other companies with contemporary design aesthetics, but that almost never goes along with such a deep connection to the material.”
The design process begins in one of two ways, says Kitts: “The first is pure experiment. We’re working with forms and shapes, sketches, paper models, and the blacksmiths in the forge. With these ideas, we’re pushing the limits of our materials and our equipment to come up with something different.”
The second design path begins with market research, client feedback, and looking for “opportunities in the market or gaps in our product line,” Kitts says. With the starburst pendant, for example, the goal was to expand the Brindille line, a traditional collection with an organic look that recalls tree branches, bark, or birds’ nests.
From there, it’s a collaborative process that involves the creative team (designers, art directors) and the sales and marketing staff. “We all have very different personal tastes and styles,” says Kitts. “Anything artistic is subjective, so when the entire team can picture it in a home — when we all agree — then we know it’s ready to go. From there, we try to get it through the manufacturing plant with as few changes as possible.” This means designing with efficient production in mind, making sure the finished fixture will be easy to forge, wire, and weld.
In recent years, Hubbardton Forge has expanded its custom capabilities. “We don’t make product to inventory,” says vice president of marketing Jeanne-Marie Gand. “When the order comes in, we make it. At any given time, our team could be producing an order for 1,000 pieces followed by a one-of-a-kind custom piece.” The manufacturing facility is a beehive of activity, with blacksmiths hammering and bending metal at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, welders using thousands of jigs to hand-shape the forged steel, technicians spraying the components with finishes in shades like “dark smoke” and “burnished steel,” and dozens of workers assembling, packing, and shipping the finished fixtures.
“Everything we make is touched by hand,” says Gand. “Our artisans genuinely care about their work and the fact that every product is going to someone’s home. In an era when so much manufacturing has moved overseas, we’ve stayed right here in Vermont. It’s an American success story.”