Finding Inspiration in the Abstract: In Conversation with Matthew Hufft

Matthew Hufft isn’t just interested in creating spaces that are simply personal and functional; a guiding principal of the architect’s U.S.-based design and fabrication firm is the belief that a space should also be exceptional.

What does this mean, exactly? Well, for Hufft and the multi-disciplinary team at his eponymous firm, which operates out of Kansas City and Bretonville in Northwest Arkansas, it means that design is a process that requires complete absorption — the adoption of a way of life, one borne out of a passion for details and a firm belief in the power of craftsmanship. This mandate has resulted in some of the finest structures, interiors, and specialty objects in the American South and Midwest.

We recently spoke with Matthew about his work, which blurs the line between the professional and personal; true to his company vision, the designer operates under the assumption that design is a thing to be lived, even when that means (quite literally!) taking the work home with him.

Before Hufft became a firm — before you even finished grad school! — your first official project was a commission from your parents. How did the fact that you knew your first clients so well shape the process, and what did it teach you moving forward? (We imagine that the combination of family ties and it being your first real job made for quite the learning curve!)

I am very close with my parents. However, this process allowed us to get to know one another in a completely different capacity: as professional adults needing to achieve success on an elaborate and important project. I discovered how my mother and father complemented one another. We all definitely earned a deeper level of respect for each other. It was the ultimate learning curve; I had almost no actual past experience to draw from. I collaborated a great deal with all of the trades that worked on the house and established a strong relationship with the contractor. That experience is the genesis for how much we focus on collaboration in my firm today.

Looking back, is there anything that you would have changed about that house based on things you’ve learned along the way?

Definitely, the most apparent would be tied to the fact that my wife and I did not have children at the time, and my parents were in the lower 60s. “Baby proofing” wasn’t really a word in my vocabulary. And our kids visited my parents frequently! Not that it is needed in a home forever; the kids do eventually grow up. However, there are a handful of details that could have been more forgiving to the needs of a home flexing with different stages of life in general, and not have affected the design. Which also comes into play with aging in general. While we had thought through of the master bedroom and laundry being on the main level for easy access, there still is a lot of stair detailing (cantilevered risers, spiral stair in the library) that we would probably reevaluate based upon longevity of existence in the home.

Hufft was co-founded by your partner in business and life, Jesse. Your complementary skillsets — your own design skills and her accomplishments in brand development and public relations — certainly make for a powerhouse team. How did you arrive at the decision to work together?

Honestly, we never thought otherwise. I am not sure we even had a formal conversation about doing this together. We just did it. I would need help with items that I didn’t have time for or were just outside of my skillset, and she would jump in and handle those. She did work various other positions simultaneously in the beginning. It was very organic. We are extreme opposites in many ways and in the other areas we are very likeminded. Much of our day to day didn’t really overlap at all, which we believe helps to relieve possible fatigue from one another. We do sincerely enjoy one another’s company, and truly appreciate the other’s work ethic and talents.

You were named among Architectural Digest’s 2015 Architects on the Rise. How have things changed for you and your firm in the years since this recognition?

It’s a thrill to be recognized by any publication at any time. That others are enamoured enough with your work to make mention feels very good. Receiving that recognition by AD was right around our 10 year anniversary. We were no longer brand new; we were making a name for ourselves and AD’s mention helped solidify that name.

Your firm is cross-disciplinary, offering services that range from architecture and interior design to object design. This streamlines things, in the words of your branding materials, into “one holistic process.” With so many employees working in different areas on the same project, how do you work to ensure that your team shares a common vision and that you’re all on the same page?

It is about how we begin all projects. We have a kick-off with all potential members that will have a hand in the project. Even though things will undoubtedly change along the way (scope increases, etc.), it gives everyone a bit of buy-in from the start. We unify all of our projects with what we call our People/Places/Concept. It’s a framework that follows the project from beginning to end. The people and places are fairly self explanatory, but we thoroughly do our diligence on knowing these two very important aspects of a project, as they directly will influence the concept. A bit “bigger picture” answer to your question — we hold a Monday morning huddle with the entire company and each principal/division lead updates the entire group at once about the current goings on and pursuits. It’s a wonderful bonding moment.

Let’s talk about your own home in Roanoke, which has been profiled in multiple publications. Jesse stated in an interview with the Kansas City Star that the house has been a “testing ground” for materials and designs, and that you sometimes invite clients over to show these in action. What elements of your home have the biggest “wow factor” with guests?

Yes, we name each of our houses and we call our home “Showhouse,” quite literally as a tool to show off both design capability and the wide variety of materiality. All of our casework/cabinetry that runs throughout the house really connects spaces, and each being of a variety of natural wood brings an abundance of warmth. We do have murals on almost all of the ceilings of our second floor that draw a lot of attention. Lastly, the overall openness of the home. We don’t have many doors— which allows for great connectivity.

We imagine, given that your house plays double duty as a showroom of sorts, there’s a lot of pressure to keep it up to date with the latest technology, eco-friendly materials, and trends. What will be the next major renovation that you take on?

Yes, our home was a “smart” home when built in 2010, and that technology has significantly advanced. “Smart” technology is not as laborious as it once was. We will work to bring our home into a more simplified version — it’s just easier to have a smart home today. We have re-done our mudroom twice as it has morphed from kids getting into the more elementary activities and needs. We have plans to redo our powder bath on the first floor this year. I do have a major kitchen renovation in mind; bringing our bar height surfaces down to counter height will be the big move there, along with some changes in light fixtures to define the space. Slowly but surely we are making moves to keep it current and interesting. We consistently update furnishings and accessories all around the house.

Where do you source inspiration for your work? Do you travel, go to museums, watch films, immerse yourself in nature…?

I find inspiration everywhere, but for the most part try to look in abstract and uncommon places. There is so much good design out there, I tend to not pull inspiration boards that show other architecture and interiors. Instead I look at art, science, and nature. I am very much interested in the process and history of things, specifically their origins.

Your firm has a vast portfolio of projects, spanning residential and commercial properties. Is there one particular project you’ve completed in the past of which you’re especially proud — perhaps because the end result exceeded expectations, or because you faced particular challenges along the way?

One of the hardest questions I receive. Each process is so different. The Line House for my parents will always rank up there for me. But probably most recently a project that we just finished in Bentonville, Arkansas: Thaden Field, which has the unique program of airport, restaurant, event and community space, flight school, and private flying club. I have a passion for aviation. I had my first solo flight at the age of 16. Named after Louise Thaden, this space elevates everything great about recreational aviation and local history. I hope it will touch many lives.

What do you hope to achieve with your firm by 2025, ten years after being named an Architect on the Rise? What would be a truly satisfying milestone or dream project?

When I think of accomplishments by 2025, my thinking allows itself to go into the international realm. We enjoy working all across the US and we would like to expand that beyond the border. We work on a variety of project types, all relating to lifestyle — where you shop, eat, play, learn, sleep, etc. Continuing to gain expertise on how these functions exist together — when they need to blend or separate — is the goal. Working with this incredibly talented team is also high on the list of things I will always be proud of; I am humbled by all of the individuals that want to be a part of it. And I know I will look around in 2025 and we will all be able to say, “what a decade.”

Let’s rewind a little! What Hufft projects can our readers look for in 2019?

A handful of things! We are currently updating the interiors in our own Hufft offices, inside the Grocers Warehouse Building in Kansas City, we are finishing up a private social club in Bentonville, Arkansas, a second location for a food hall, Parlor in Oklahoma City, headquarters for accessory brand Nickel and Suede, a brewery in a wonderful rural town in Kansas, an academic building for the Kansas City Art Institute, new facility for local KC arts organization The Charlotte Street Foundation, a café and bike shop in Bentonville, a major academic building for the University of Arkansas, and Tuft & Needle retail store locations throughout the country.


Photos courtesy of Hufft.