Q&A with Homemade Modern's Ben Uyeda

Feb 15, 2018

Ben Uyeda is a designer, lecturer, and the entrepreneur behind media company Homemade Modern that brings affordable and sustainable DIY designs to the masses. 

We love seeing the projects that Ben and his team come up with using our hairpin legs and we were lucky enough to pick his (very impressive) brain about the magic behind Homemade Modern, his new partnership with Dwell, and all of his other design-related endeavors. 


You have already made a huge impact on sustainable living awareness through your work with Zero Energy Design and Free Green. What made you decide to go from architecture to educating people on sustainable living via DIY projects?

BU: It was more of just broadening our economic demographics. With architecture, it's great because you're designing big things, in this case, entire houses. The downside is that the average person isn't using an architect to get their home. The average house designed by an architect is about twice the sale price of the average American home.

I love architecture, I love designing something from start to finish, but you don't really reach a broad spectrum society. You can only reach the higher income brackets. With Free Green, we were able to reach a broader audience with energy-efficient designs. But, even then, the audience is relatively small because even when you make the design free in this case, there are not that many people that can afford to have their home built from scratch.

It’s nice to design a house from scratch and make it zero energy and solar powered and have all of this cool technology, but if you’re only doing that for a few people, and the wealthiest people at that, you’re not really making that big of an impact. And that’s when we sort of started, about 4 years ago, really focusing on the DIY market and now were able to reach about 10 to 15 million people a month.


How does your new partnership with Dwell work in relation to Homemade Modern?


BU: It overlaps in the theme but it’s a separate video series. Like most media companies, they're trying to figure out how to get more involved in the production of video. But it's expensive to make videos. We’re good at producing highly creative content quickly and efficiently by empowering the designers and the creative people and not gearing production around camera operators who make things without really knowing what they’re making. The Dwell series is going on Dwell channels. It's affordable, modern, DIY projects. They’re a little bit simpler in a lot of reasons. They’re more entry level than a lot of the stuff we’re doing on our channels but they’re the basic staples of design.



How many project episodes are you producing on a regular basis?

BU: Right now we're working on larger projects. We’re building out an entire store in Venice, CA and after that, we’re going to be building a tiny house out of a shipping container from scratch. So, those will be bigger projects that take longer amounts of time.

In general, we do probably about 3-4 videos a month on our channel and with Dwell its weekly.

How do you decide what project you’re going to tackle next?

BU: I sit around with our design team and we talk about things were interested in. We talk about the potential challenges that come with doing them the obvious way and then we try to brainstorm how we're going to achieve it. We definitely don’t do it by saying, “This is hot” or, “This is popular”. No shade to anyone that does that, but it tends to normalize creative and we want to have stuff that appeals to people but is differentiated. We look for the production opportunities and the design opportunities and how those intersect.


What is the dynamic of Homemade Modern like?


BU: Everyone kind of does the same thing. We don’t want to assembly line the creative process. We want to have engaged conversations about creativity and designs but we want everyone to kind of be “soup to nuts” when it comes to designing and making the things. It’s a way that we can keep certain aspects of production consistent, but we can also showcase different voices from different ages, different demographics and stuff like that. It’s a creative choice: we’re not managing and we’re not assembly lining content. We want it to be about the design, not the person.

What is your favorite kind of project to work on? Is there one in particular that you had a lot of fun with?

BU: It’s funny, the projects I like the most tend to be not the most popular in terms of views. My favorite one I did last year was a plywood table so it was an entire table made from cheap plywood. I think it looks really cool, it’s affordable, it’s a table you can make for about $50 and you can do it with relatively minimal tools. 

Another example that involved hairpin legs was one we did early on and that was just the simplest hairpin bench that we made using a 2x12 and then we used very basic level knitting to make a sleeve. What I love about this is that it looks really sophisticated and it looks really different in terms of most DIY projects but it is super entry level. It's taking two different entry-level skill sets from knitting and basic woodworking and combining them. So you’re getting something that looks a little bit more advanced even though the skill level is a little more basic.


Is there one material that you like working with more than others? Like steel, wood or concrete?

BU: I’m pretty comfortably beginner level with all materials but I think that the comfort comes from the fact that I’m never trying to be a craftsperson. My background is in design and design is what I’m good at. Making is just a way to demonstrate how it could be done. When I look at materials, I certainly appreciate forgiving materials, like plywood is fantastic to work with because it's cheap and uniform and available everywhere. Concrete is also fantastic. It’s physically challenging to work with but it’s so inexpensive.

Do you have to teach yourself how to do most of these projects or do you tend to stick to things you’re familiar with?

BU: We’re always learning new skill sets. Last year, we learned a lot about leatherworking and we learned a lot about working with copper. The year before that, we focused a lot on concrete. Learning new skills is essential and it’s what keeps it interesting. It’s the same thing with cooking; you might not try to make a recipe with 10 ingredients that you've never used before but you might slowly add those 10 ingredients one at a time to other recipes that you are familiar with. That way you develop and you isolate and I find that that's an efficient way to learn because you only have one new variable at a time. So, if something doesn't come out the way you expected it to, the new variable is isolated and you can then adjust accordingly.



You’re obviously no stranger to hairpin legs. What qualities do you look for when choosing hairpin legs for a project?

BU: There are a few things to look for: I look for the size of the bracket that connects to the material. That's important for 2 reasons: the bigger that bracket is, the more stable it is. But also, the bigger that bracket is, the less flexibility you have for placement.

I also look for the screw hole details. Do I need to use a pan head screw which would show? Or are the holes tapered so I can use a tapered screw? And how big are the holes? Should I drill my own tapered holes into them?

I use powder coated legs often and I think they're fantastic but typically I use those more for desks or smaller things. In general I prefer raw steel. I've prob done 10 or more projects with hairpin legs.



When did your DIY project videos start getting sponsored? Talk about a dream job.

BU: Pretty early on, right when I had about 30,000 subscribers. They weren’t sponsoring so much to get a lot of views because the audience wasn’t big enough then. They were sponsoring great content that could go on their channels. Your value isn't in your views. It’s the content that's valuable, not so much the views that it generates. The views just sort of demonstrate the quality of the content. That just means this content is so interesting that its earning its own viewership.

How has the response been from the DIY Community? Do you feel like you’re making the impact you set out for?

BU: The audience numbers are huge which is nice. It's nice to reach tens of millions of people every month. The part that I enjoy the most is when people send me images of the things they have made. To me, that's the really meaningful part. So when somebody says, “Here's my family having breakfast at the dining table we made” or, “I just bought my first house and I made the desk for it.” Those are the ones that feel really fun.

When you buy your first house or you start a business, it's really important to you but you’re also probably at that moment in time when you’re on a budget. That's the moment where I think our content is incredibly useful because these people really care about their project. They're putting all of their time and energy into it. Making it themselves is that way to sort of signify how much you care but it’s still cost efficient and you’re making something that fits you perfectly. Some nice thoughtful DIY projects are great to sort of kick things off.

You’ve already accomplished so much at a young age. Do you have plans to change things up in the future or are you happy where you are now?

BU: I’ll observe trends from the past and I like mixing it up and doing different things. I like the interaction with an audience, whether its big or small. I like to see that the content is having an impact and causing people to take action, not just look at it. For 2018, I’m doing fewer projects but bigger projects. My team of designers is doing more of the smaller, consistent projects for the Homemade Modern channel and that will be fun. But, I have a feeling that maybe at the end of this year I’ll feel like, “Wow, those big projects were so exhausting. Maybe next year I’ll go back to doing a bunch of small projects.” But I don’t know, in general, I’ll move to where I can have the most impact with the resources I have available to me.

Well, we know you’ll kill it no matter where you end up. Thanks again for taking time to chat with us and we look forward to seeing your big projects come to life this year!

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