“Velvet Hippos” Need Their Beauty Sleep
Co-founder Shalina Chen on how her Pit Bull-inspired beds don’t sacrifice style for comfort.
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Velvet Hippo (noun): An endearing term that refers to a Pit Bull-type breed of dog.
Just adopted a velvet hippo from the shelter today!
Anyone who knows a Pit Bull knows they are as adorably doofy, stocky, and velvety as actual hippos. Unfortunately, the need for a term of endearment is due to the frequent misunderstanding and assumption that these pups aggressive, leading to the mistreatment of many. Now, if you’re thinking hippos actually are super aggressive, I applaud your Nat Geo subscription but this is not the forum. Public perception aside, Pit Bulls really just like to be loved and sleep — a concept central to pet accessories brand Velvet Hippo.
The brand was founded by partners in life and work, product designer Shalina Chen and award-winning furniture designer (with work in the Smithsonian Museum) Jason Horvath — making for a uniquely intimate collaboration. A few years ago, as they were decorating their Brooklyn apartment, they faced a challenge when searching for a dog bed that would complement their aesthetic without sacrificing the comfort of their Pittie rescues Lola and Rasta. They decided to solve the issue in-house and Velvet Hippo was born, a tightly edited line of hexagonal-shaped, stone-washed canvas beds stuffed with recycled poly-fill. We chatted with Chen about the brand’s origins, design, and the dogs that inspired it.
What was the inspiration behind Velvet Hippo?
It really started naturally. I have two rescue Pit Bull mixes and at the time we were living in Brooklyn — now I’m in Park City. We were decorating our home and couch shopping but the one thing we couldn’t find for our pets was a dog bed. Everything I was looking at just didn’t fit in the home. From there, I started making my own beds. I have a fashion and design background so I was sewing a couple beds myself and then it grew pretty organically.
How did your background as a graphic and product designer influence Velvet Hippo’s aesthetic?
I went to school for fashion and was working at Madewell when we started Velvet Hippo. When it comes to decorating your home, I think we just want something really organic, but still very thoughtful. Something that you really wanted to put in your home that reflects your sense of style. So that’s where the design comes in. We wanted a donut-shaped bed, but not literally donut-shaped bed, more of a rounded shape — something that didn’t really exist out there at the time. But we also wanted it to be functional. So the design was a mixture of that.
You mentioned your two rescue Pities, Rasta and Lola; I'm assuming the name Velvet Hippo was in reference to them?
Yeah, if you have a Pit Bull then you know what a velvet hippo is. It’s kind of like a pet name for Pitties with short hair that kind of resembles a hippo. It was a cute name that always stuck with us. I’m also just a big believer in adoption and try to encourage people to do that if they can.
What are Rasta and Lola like?
Oh man, they have such personalities. Being Pit Bulls, sometimes they get a bad rap. There’s a certain stigma with the breed and there are a lot of them in shelters so I have a soft spot for them. But Rasta is the most loveable dog; he’s like a teddy bear. He’s just the sweetest and such an indoor dog. Lola is quite the opposite. She’s the queen of the house, definitely the head of the household. I think she’s got a little herding dog in her so she’s very persnickety — super loving but has a lot of attitude. It’s fun to see that juxtaposition in our family of dogs.
Did you always want Pit Bulls?
My husband adopted them first and then I met him; that’s how they came into my life. I didn’t grow up with Pitties or anything like that, but it’s definitely something I’ve grown to love. A lot of the issues surrounding the breed and the negative attention they often receive was something I became more educated about after having them in my life. But adoption was always important to me.
You mentioned your partner, Jason; what is it like working so closely with your significant other?
For us, it’s really helpful. If you look at it like a Venn diagram, we definitely overlap but we each also have our own strengths. We’re on the same team so it’s easy to help each other out. Jason’s less hands-on in terms of day-to-day stuff, but he’s really great at strategy and seeing the big picture to help with the direction of initiatives. And I’m more the one to sit in front of a spreadsheet and do the day-to-day things. So it’s a good blend. We’re also both design backgrounds — he’s from furniture and I’m from fashion — so in that way, it’s kind of different. We bring different things to the table but we work really well together. So I’m lucky.
The design of your products, specifically the beds, is very minimalistic. Why was this a style you gravitated toward?
We’re both very minimal in our aesthetic and I think that’s what a lot of people look for in not only their homes but their pet products. I think a lot of traditional pet products you’d get at a major store, you wouldn’t really want in your house. It can be too frou frou. So we wanted it to be minimal but also functional. Like, it’s important that it fits in our home, but it also needs to work for the dog. That’s why washability was a big aspect that we were designing into. We wanted it to be reusable and not something you’d have to rebuy every six months.
How crucial was the bed’s durability in its design process?
I have two dogs who chew up a lot of stuff, so I know what it’s like to quickly go through things. And sometimes you can’t help it, but we wanted to make something that was intentionally durable and that would last.
What’s next for Velvet Hippo? Where would you like to see the brand go?
We’re looking at the intersection of home accessories and pet accessories — not just toys or food. We want to continue to blend our and our pets’ lifestyles together. Because they are a part of our lives. We want to do more accessories and more dog beds, not just our hero product. We’re really thinking about the home as a whole.
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Sean Zucker is a writer whose work has been featured in Points In Case, The Daily Drunk, Posty, and WellWell. He has an adopted Pit Bull named Banshee whose work has been featured on the kitchen floor and whose behavioral issues rival his own.