August 28, 2019

Since our founding, Hugo & Hoby has worked on a number of projects with Swarthmore College. As an alum of the college, Ben, one of the co-founder’s of Hugo & Hoby, loves to work with the college to design beautiful furniture for his alma mater. A recent project, the renovation of Sproul Observatory presented a rare opportunity to preserve and reimagine an amazing historic space that once served as a cutting-edge observatory so that it may continue to serve the Swarthmore community.

Sproul Observatory was originally constructed in 1878 as the President’s house. In 1911  William Cameron Sproul ‘91, the former governor of PA, donated funds to renovated the building into an advanced observatory where astronomers studied planets and binary stars. After a century of academic use, the space was renovated once more to become a new intercultural center. The transformation was made possible by the generosity of James Hormel ‘55 and his partner Micheal Nguyen ‘08. Hormel was the first openly LGBTQ person to be a U.S. Ambassador and in 1981 he became a founder of the Human Rights Campaign.

The Hormel-Nguyen Intercultural Center aims to “engage and empower the community through advocacy, dialogue, and support networks to influence campus culture and promote inclusivity and identity consciousness”. For a space with such an important mission, we wanted to create furniture that had a depth of meaning. Preserving historic spaces and incorporating them in contemporary designs comes with technical challenges, but it also imbues our new pieces with a sort of reverence for the past life of the space.

For example, Hugo & Hoby worked with Swarthmore College and Cicada Architects to design a piece that would cover the concrete plinth that once supported the 50K telescope above it. Removing the telescope from the building was a massive feat in itself (photo of the telescope being removed from Swarthmore article). The giant 15 ft x 12ft  White Ash tabletop, which was placed atop the concrete plinth is a design that is plainly beautiful  and has an amazing backstory. The tabletop was made entirely from a single salvaged urban white ash tree from New Haven, CT. We added a copper and walnut inlays representing the planets and stars studied by Swarthmore astronomers. The walnut stools that line the table’s edge and live edge circular table are made from salvaged urban walnut and hand-welded steel frames with a patina finish. The large tables in the new kitchen/dining area are also from reclaimed oak salvaged from New England. See the rest of the thoughtful designs and meticulous fabrication (in the gallery below).

White ash table top fabricated from a singular stormed-down ash tree in New Haven.

Salvaged walnut stools with hand-welded steel frames finished with a patina.

Copper and walnut inlays in the ash tabletop represent the planets and binary stars that astronomers studied in this observatory for over a century.

Communal Tables with reclaimed white oak tops and steel frames.

Salvaged walnut circular table with a hand-welded steel frame in a patina finish.

A unique hollow butterfly joint joins the live edge walnut at the center.

Walnut coffee table with a steel frame and bottom storage shelf.