May 2005

From Miniature to Magnificent

One woman pursues her childhood love of furniture and becomes a master craftsman.

By Hannah Miller
These Amsterdam Chairs are made from an ebonized mahogany frame inset with MDF panels. At top, one has been hand-painted a brilliant red, blue, yellow and white; the other, above, uses pinkish-red paduak (which will darken with time) instead of painted panels.

When other little girls were checking out the dolls in St. Louis department stores, Kimberly MacLean (then Reynolds) was checking out the furniture. "My favorite floor was not the toy floor as you would think, but the floor where the furniture displays were," MacLean recalls.

She visited the displays so often with her fashion and design-oriented mother that she knew when something had been moved around. Even though she was fascinated with furniture, MacLean says, "I never thought it could be a career or something to pursue."

So she went to school to study other things and received a bachelor's degree in classical theater from Northwestern University and a master's in film from the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. After graduating, MacLean embarked on a career as a Hollywood screenwriter.

However, her love of furniture design never left her, and in 1992 she was back in St. Louis making miniature furniture for the collectibles market. She learned woodworking basics, like joinery, from making miniature furniture pieces, and in 1998, after mastering the techniques, she took the plunge and started making full-size furniture.

In addition to making furniture, MacLean, who says she is the only African-American woman with a woodworking business that she knows of, also began fabricating cabinets and architectural millwork in her garage. Today, she heads Druids Woodworking, a $1 million company that has worked on some of St. Louis' high-profile architectural woodworking projects. The company employs eight professionals in a 19,000-square-foot shop with a showroom attached.

Finding Time for Furniture

At first, nearly all of the company's jobs were architectural millwork, but in the last two years MacLean has been able to incorporate her first love, furniture making, further into the business.

Her Garrett Reynolds Collection of travel-inspired furniture won the Fiber, Leather, Furniture and Woodwork Award at the Oh! Originals Show and Sale in St. Louis in 2003. The collection was also shown at the Chicago Design Show at the Chicago Merchandise Mart in 2003.

Her theater training has not been wasted, though, MacLean notes. "I think my furniture has a theatrical flair to it."

MacLean's Madagascar Bed is " fit for royalty," she says. The mortised-and-tenoned end posts are made from African paduak that features a natural reddish color. They are finished with ebonized-mahogany caps on top and bottom.

Take her American Table. Two slabs of mahogany are linked to form a dining table that has the simplicity of an early colonial table, with trestle legs and mortise-and-tenon joinery. The table can be taken apart to form two end tables. Bright, clear-coated diagonal strips of eight different woods form a ribbon the length of each section's joining edge. When the table is joined together, the ribbons form a chevron pattern. Using different woods from around the world, everything from paduak and rosewood to maple and cherry, MacLean celebrates the different cultures that make up America.

Her Amsterdam Chair is an ebonized mahogany frame inset with MDF panels hand-painted a brilliant red, blue, yellow and white. It is Mondrian-looking, and (for her) being seated in the chair is like wrapping a painting around you, she says.

In a second version of the chair, MacLean uses pinkish-red paduak instead of painted panels, for those with more conservative tastes. "The color will darken with time," she says. "It is very rich-looking."

MacLean adds that she wants her furniture to be functional as well as artistic. "The goal is to make sure it is pretty and that you can actually enjoy it," she says. Recently a collector who bought the Amsterdam Chair at an art museum auction thwarted her intent when he tossed out the custom cushions she made, preferring that nothing distract from the beautiful lines of the chair.

Her Zanzibar Chair is a model of simplicity itself, until you notice the hand-carved designs on the slanted back. The chair is ebonized mahogany; the geometric designs are drawn from Asian and African traditions. "I was doing it with a carving knife at first," MacLean says. "I tried a router, but went back to a carving knive for the uneven, hand-carved look I wanted," MacLean adds.

Barcelona "is one of the most colorful cities I've ever been in." It inspired her ebonized oak Barcelona Sideboard and Barcelona Bed Headboard. MacLean hand-painted a colorful mosaic design in the MDF panels - a task that her staff teased her about because she stayed up all night painting. "But the mix of golds, blues and reds look random," she says, adding that the design actually required considerable faithfulness to a pattern.

In addition, she notes, the sideboard, which has sliding doors, can function as a room divider. This is possible because MacLean finishes all sides of her furniture pieces. "This way you are not forced to place something against the wall," she adds.

MacLean drew on a family legend for her Madagascar Bed. Her grandfather's grandmother is said to have been a princess in Madagascar, and MacLean considers the Madagascar Bed fit for royalty. The mortised-and-tenoned end posts are made from African paduak that features a natural reddish color; they are finished with ebonized-mahogany caps on top and bottom.

When finishing a furniture piece, MacLean uses several different finishing materials, including Solar-Lux stains from Behlen, Sherwin-Williams stains and Chemcraft clear coats.

Furniture for the Generations

Architectural millwork jobs still make up the bulk of business at Druids Woodworking, which MacLean expects to grow to $4 million this year. "We definitely want to get bigger," she says. The shop is authorized to bid on federal jobs anywhere in the world, and she's looking to partner with larger shops around the country on specific projects, she says.

Ebonized African mahogany showcases geometric patterns that have been carved into this decorative Zanzibar Chair.

However, MacLean does not expect the company's involvement in architectural millwork to end her furniture-making. "Furniture is definitely my passion, although it doesn't pay the rent," she says. Millwork accounts for about 90 percent of sales and furniture, 10 percent. "Hopefully, one day that will shift," she says.

Whether they are the Garrett Reynolds pieces in the showroom or commissioned pieces in customers' homes, her furniture runs counter to what she sees as society's current "throw-away" trend.

"You buy a new computer every year. You buy a new cell phone every year." But with high-quality piece of furniture, MacLean feels, it should be different. "My philosophy is it should last for generations."

MacLean has spent years learning the woodworking basics from everyone around her and continues to do so. When she first formed Druids Woodworking, she did all the different tasks in the shop and was aided by then husband Kent MacLean, who is no longer with the company.

"As the projects got bigger, I'd hire another guy, and we'd buy another tool," she says. Of the eight employees now, six are woodworkers, one is a project manager and the other is an estimator. Architectural millwork projects are generally in the $250,000 range.

Today, before Druids Woodworking starts any new job, the entire staff sits down together to talk about who it is for, what it should look like and how it will be achieved.

Although MacLean, a former president of the local AWI chapter and a member of that national organization's advisory board, is responsible for the designs, "I still recognize that somebody else might have a better idea."

In addition to the many schools, hospitals, libraries, restaurants and homes Druids has worked on, it has supplied the renovated Missouri state capitol with 70 copies of restroom stall doors that dated to the 1800s.

Soon the company will begin work on home-team and visitors' locker rooms at the new St. Louis Cardinals stadium near the shop. It will fabricate the lockers and the cabinets, using wood and laminates.

MacLean says she will continue to work on new designs for her furniture pieces as well, incorporating into her commissioned pieces something of personal significance to the owners. "Perhaps a wood from some country they are from," she adds, noting that personalization furthers her goal "to actually create heirlooms for individuals."


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