The Building Friendship
Harris Hine and Rudy Unrau have been best friends since preschool. Now both 27 years old, they have founded MTN Lab, an experimental furniture and art studio in Colorado. Growing up in Boulder, Colorado, the lifelong friends have been building things together since they can remember—skis, bikes, random projects. But it wasn’t until spring 2015 that the idea for MTN Lab was born. Both back in Boulder, Hine and Unrau began showing sculptures at Studio Como in Denver’s RiNo art district at the time. “Getting in there is what really materialized the company,” Unrau recalls. “That’s when we came up with our name and went from just building stuff to actually focusing on a business.”
The two men, both quiet and reflective, share an ardent love for design and the mountains. Yet, they come together at MTN Lab—at the intersection of art and adventure—from opposite directions: Hine a trained designer and woodworker, Unrau a former professional mountain biker turned woodsman fighting wildfires for the Forest Service.
Harris Hine grew up profoundly influenced by his father, Vienna-born modernist architect Harvey Hine, who founded HMH Architecture + Interiors in Boulder.
“I’ve always been torn between the design side of my personality and just wanting to be in the woods,” Hine shares. He went to school for design at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn before moving from New York City to Portland, Oregon, where he worked as industrial designer. “I didn’t find any fulfillment doing other people’s projects, and I didn’t really like the mass production side of product design,” he admits.
All those years, Hine pined for the woods, where his old friend was.
Unrau, while attending college in Western Colorado, signed on with the United States Forest Service. “I was on track to becoming a smoke jumper, working for a helicopter crew down in Durango,” the long and lanky woodworker recounts. “It was a great setup because you work a ton in the summer, and then you get winter free to do whatever you want, like ski and move to Canada.”
Throughout those years, Unrau had been harboring the desire to return to making art. “Seeing the things you see when you get to fly around and travel the US and go to all of the mountain ranges... I had ideas emerge to work with the trees that had been burnt or partially burnt in fires because they get so twisted and cool.”
"I had ideas emerge to work with the trees that had been burnt or partially burnt in fires because they get so twisted and cool.”
Joint adventure up north
At last, one pivotal winter Hine and Unrau moved to British Columbia together to ski. Their close friendship and mutual influence would impact each man’s path. “Rudy was all in the woods,” Hine remembers, “Living together pulled him back into the design world and brought me back into the woods.”
Unrau agrees: “I’ve always been at home in the woods. Growing up, I really wanted to pursue mountain biking, so I raced mountain bikes professionally for quite a few years.” After the athlete got “a little bit tired” of mountain bike racing in world cups, he focused on skiing.
Skiing in Canada was good fun. Winter gone, however, Unrau planned to work another fire season. The outdoorsman envisioned himself carrying on that seasonal rhythm of demanding service and wild adventures in the snow for years until he had and his friend had their fill of youth and independence. “And... I crashed paragliding,” he tells, falling solemn all of a sudden. “I broke my back and almost died and spent half a year recovering.”
His loyal friend by his side, Unrau needed to reevaluate his future. “I realized, I wouldn’t be able to do fire again,” he says. “And then it was pretty natural the way MTN Lab came together—us getting our shop set up to where we could build.”
The MTN Lab process
Starting with sculptures, the duo soon began venturing into furniture. Their vision is to grow the Conifer studio into an art collective, with more creatives joining them. They are even planning to build a tiny house to accommodate visiting artists and designers.
MTN Lab is as much a concept as it is a company. “Our process is the most indicative of what we make,” Hine explains. The founders source all of their materials themselves in the Colorado mountains. “We quarry our own stones to carve and collect our own wood.” Like it was for generations of makers in the mountains before them, MTN Lab’s workflow follows nature’s rhythmic swing. “Right now it’s the season for us to go get river stones because the flow just came down,” Hine tells me, when I sit down with him and his partner on that warm day in early September. “And we are doing antler stuff because we found a bunch of Elk sheds. That’s this flow that we follow.” Adds Unrau: “Our company is trying to do the whole process from sourcing, getting our materials, designing it, building it ourselves, photographing it ourselves.”
The friend believes having grown up in the mountains is what motivates them to see the entire process through, from beginning to end. “Spending all of your free time in the backcountry—you’re just so inspired by what you’re surrounded by,” Unrau says. “Initially, we were out there to ski, climbing to ski. We were dirt-biking. But when you spend that much time out there, it altered our perception of why we were there. And now it’s awesome because we get to ski, but that’s not the whole part of the process. The ski is the vessel for finding the materials—as well as the inspiration.”
“The ski is the vessel for finding the materials—as well as the inspiration.”
Connecting nature and art
“I’ve always liked minimalist design, and I rarely see that done with natural materials,” Hine says. “You look at Bauhaus stuff, and it’s very industrialized. My dad being the modernist he is, half of me is always striving for that simplicity. But then there is the other part of me... the Colorado guy. And I see these cool pieces of wood and antlers and it naturally merged. In college, I was more on the industrial, clean-cut metal side of things, and my style has evolved more and more into a hybrid of rustic and modern.”
Unrau, for his part, never earned an art or design degree, nor does the lack of academic study in the field limit him in his current work. “We really do our designing when we’re out in the woods. We don’t sit down in an office to draw. We see the material, and the material almost dictates its design.”
They usually know right away, if a piece of wood they come upon in the forest will transform into an art sculpture, a table, or something else entirely. Back at the studio, they combine found pieces of wood or elk shed with marble and often with contrasting metal. The final artwork or furniture piece comes together like a collage. While the sculptures are never drawn out, the furniture generally is. “We design our table bases, draw them by hand. Sometimes, we bring it into CAD.”
The day I met up with Unrau and Hine, they had come down from their studio above 8000 feet to deliver a piece of art they made for the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. “We had this mobile,” Hine begins, chuckling, “And then Rudy dropped it on the staircase, and we were like ‘Oh, no, we’re so crushed. And we had to quickly build it a second time yesterday, and it came out eight times better than the first. That process isn’t always easy to rely on, but sometimes when you make it again, it’s better. This is how we continuously design.”
Speaking about the synergy between Colorado’s magnificent nature, rich history and tradition, and progressive modern art, Hine notes that he is profoundly influenced by the stone carvings of American artist and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi. “It’s that blend of leaving these big natural boulders and polishing one face of it.”
Rustic designs with wood and stone are ubiquitous. “But it’s hard to find someone who has done them simple enough so that these materials individually speak for themselves,” hine says. “Antler furniture is really something we have been experimenting with, because it’s hard to find a simple antler-anything. All the chandeliers are the same hunter antler cluster. And all of a sudden, you are appreciating the simplicity of the singular antler as a sculptural element. That’s what makes it alpine modern, and not just alpine.”
“And all of a sudden, you are appreciating the simplicity of the singular antler as a sculptural element. That’s what makes it alpine modern, and not just alpine.”
A modernists at heart, Hine still looks to the arts and crafts movement for inspiration. “Not stylistically but the whole concept of it is huge, especially since my education is in mass production and industrial design and product development. And going back to actually hand-building one-off pieces from the found materials we use, you can’t really build the same piece twice. It’s almost like we’re in an arts and crafts revival, which is weird for me because that’s the antithesis of the Bauhaus influence, of going from craft to industrial production.”
Our conversation later on reveals that the two 27 year olds are somewhat of an antithesis, too—to their fellow millennials. The Internet, they admit tittering, is their shortcoming. “Neither of us really enjoys social media, self promotion, or even doing the sales part,” Hine says. “It’s the cliché artist who doesn’t sell his stuff. We just are either in the woods or in the shop. It never feels like were working.”
MTN Lab projects
Each MTN Lab piece embodies a story of adventure and friendship.
For example, Unrau says seventy years ago, many trees were cut down to make room for high-voltage lines to Fairplay, south of Breckenridge, Colorado. “The company just left them, so these big old-growth rounds have been drying up there all these years,” he says. MTN Lab milled the pine rounds into table tops. “That’s our next big design push, designing bases for those tables,” he says. “Or the motorcycle, which is a lifelong dream we’ve shared since we were little kids.”
Indeed, Hine and Unrau want to build a motorcycle entirely from scratch, the back end made hand-carved in wood. Before winter, they even want to experiment with producing their our own steel, from mining the rock to crushing and melting it. Whether the resulting material will in fact be usable won’t matter as much: “At least we will be able to appreciate the process when we go to the store and buy steel.”
“The motorcycle is going to be very much like our furniture and our sculptures,” Unrau says. “I would describe it as an art bike. It’s going to be functional. It’s going to ride very well, but it’s not going to look like a conventional motorcycle. I don’t know if we’re going to be willing to sell it.” The business partners are also debating whether they will ever have the heart to sell the 1960s Airstream that once belonged to Unrau’s grandfather and they just finished restoring. “I never want to sell any of our stuff,” Unrau admits, laughing. “It’s hopeless.” △