McKinnon & Harris

McKinnon Harris furniture, outdoor furniture, distinction magazine, distinctionhr, lawn furniture, Richmond VA, Richmond
McKinnon Harris furniture, outdoor furniture, distinction magazine, distinctionhr, lawn furniture, Richmond VA, Richmond

by JANINE LATUS
photography by ERIC LUSHER

RICHMOND – Hard up against the railroad tracks in this industrial section of this metal-working town, artisans at McKinnon and Harris cut and bend and weld and grind, turning NASA-grade aluminum into outdoor furniture so fine that a single bench costs $8,000. 

The pieces are slated for the master balcony, the side terrace, the tanning ledges of homes in Florida and Palm Beach and Aspen, or perhaps for the decks of yachts.

But they’re manufactured here, in the Scott’s Addition section of Richmond, home to cabinetmakers, taxidermists, brewers and building contractors. This is a place where people make things. Named after the land’s long-ago owner, Gen. Winfield Scott – called Old Fuss and Feathers because of his fondness for dress uniforms – the neighborhood has seen eras of bustling productivity when street-car-riding workers manufactured radiators, fire trucks and bread, and decades of decline, when factories gave way to gambling houses, brothels and vacant warehouses. Now those warehouses and factories are being converted into trendy loft apartments and their attendant restaurants, coffee shop and gym.

McKinnon and Harris owners Anne and Will Massie are rooted deep in Virginia soil, the sister and brother raised in Lynchburg amidst antiques and art, and grandmothers who gardened. Their parents dragged them to museums and art shows, and once on a beach trip stopped at an antique store and bought the breakfast table the family still eats at today, wedging it half into the back seat over the children’s heads.

“We have all of these memories, all of these attachments to furniture,” Will says. “Each piece when we were growing up had belonged to somebody and had a particular story that was connected to it.”

“And there was such a disposable mentality with furniture put outdoors,” Anne adds, “that we wanted to do something that had a real permanence to it, something that would be enduring.”

They do that by being, they say, control freaks, and having everything but the aluminum itself made within blocks of their business.

“We’re all about everything being local,” Will says, “so we really know and trust everyone we work with and they know our expectations.”

“Plus, there’s just extraordinary local talent,” Anne says, “a real reverence for fine craftsmanship.”

They speak gently, greet guests warmly and consider their employees and customers to be extended family. Every Christmas Will writes a handwritten note to each worker, each one so personal and heartfelt that the recipients save them, and some employees now have bundles of more than a dozen. People who work here stay here.

Anne, 52, has a master of fine arts degree and shows her abstract oil paintings at galleries throughout the state. Will, 51, was a banker but felt no passion for the job. The two have been in business together since childhood, when they sold home-grown produce at their own farm stand. In 1991 they were living one above the other in a duplex in the Fan district of Richmond when they came up with the idea of building landscape furniture. It would be crafted like the antiques they admired, with fine materials and elegant lines, and the engineering and sturdiness to last generations. And the company would be named after their grandmothers, to honor them for their gorgeous gardens.

They started with steel, working with a welder in a place so small that it had electricity but no plumbing. Their mother, a watercolor artist, painted the cover for their first stylebook, and she’s done every one since. Her children repaid the favor by giving their parents some of their earliest furniture, which they still use today. Steel rusts, though, so Anne and Will switched to aluminum and moved to a larger space, and then to a larger one still, expanding until they now have 35 people working on site, and more at their showrooms in New York and London and Los Angeles.

The aluminum arrives having been “extruded like pasta” elsewhere in the United States, a bead along one edge or flat on each, as shop foreman Matthew Browne says in his rolling Welsh accent, made to McKinnon and Harris’ precise specifications. Some components are sculpted or lasered or whittled at a machine shop down the block; there’s little reason to duplicate efforts in a city with such a long tradition of metalwork. Richmond is, after all, the home of Reynolds Metals Co., maker of everything from soda cans to buses, and once a submarine called the Aluminaut.

“This is a very industrial city,” Browne says. “If there’s something that needs to be crafted out of metal, there’s someone in Richmond who can do it.”

Will and Anne’s ideas are translated into plans using 3-D software, often by Jamie Taylor, 38, who works in research and development, although he’s done every other job in the 15 years he’s been with the company. From his plans come specifications for each piece, and from those specs comes the kit list, from which come legs and arms and braces for bottoms, cut by a saw handler and then bent with the primitive Hossfeld bender around half-moon dies custom-made to give each piece the curving elegance of the original vision.

Everything else is done in-house, in a shop that employees say is more like Santa’s Workshop than a factory, inhabited not by elves but by a hodgepodge of personalities. At the lunch table, the hunter who smokes meat for the Christmas party sits next to the tea-and-biscuits Welshman, and the Libertarian argues with the liberals, all of them artists and thus passionate people. The Massies encourage them in their art, and once turned a front portion of the shop into an art gallery and threw a party so that everyone could admire one another’s work.

The parts for an order of chairs are grouped together on a rolling cart – six seats, 12 straight back legs and 12 curved for the front, 24 L-shaped under-seat braces, plus splats and stiles and stretchers and rails, and always the tracking sheet so that each step can be checked off as it’s done.

The cart rolls next to the welders. Chris Caldwell, 54, himself here 16 years, mounts a seat onto a lazy susan-like turntable, and to it clamps gauges that will hold each leg at a precise pitch. Each item fits exactly where it belongs, “thanks to Matt and his guys,” he says. “They drill all these holes, cut all these angles and make every notch just right so that it fits together. If they don’t you get a puzzle that doesn’t go together.”

He sets more clamps, 20 in all, before he pulls on his welding mask. Aluminum morphs toward heat, so it takes practice and experience to weld it properly; you have to skip around, moving the flame. “If  you do it dot, dot, dot you’ll learn quickly that you have to do it another way,” Caldwell says, Instead he welds a little, then waits, taking notes so he’ll know the sequence the next time.

“Building this furniture is awesome,” he says. “I got up excited every single day when I first started working here. When I knew the next day they were going to let me build a table I’d never built before, I’d think about it all night long.”

Some pieces take hundreds of welds, each placed not just for the strength of the piece but with a mind for the next guy, the grinder who will make these welds disappear. “We try to pay it forward,” Caldwell says. It is the welder’s initials that will be stamped into the underside of the piece, but he is just one artist among many.

The piece next goes to the finishers, who work on height-adjustable hospital gurneys, grinding and sanding and smoothing, using hand tools and elbow grease to make the welds vanish. “These are the guys who do the magic,” says Browne. “When they’re done it looks like it was always just one piece.”

Finisher Rob Mir, 34, has a bachelor of fine arts degree from James Madison University. He came to the company six years ago, after answering an ad on Craigslist looking for a craftsperson.

“Usually when you’re applying for jobs, being an artist is a negative,” he says, sanding at a weld. The pieces here, though, are like sculptures, and the work takes an artist’s eye and attention to detail. The work is laborious and highly physical, and doing it well matters to Mir because it has an impact on the success of the company.

He wipes away some dust and returns to sanding. If he takes off too much the piece will be ruined; if he leaves a bump the next guy down the line will send it back. For hours he works, and only when he thinks it’s perfect will he send it to the blasting booth, where a worker in white coveralls, rubber boots and a respirator wields a fire hose that blasts out fine aluminum powder, stripping off any oxidation and leaving a toothy surface that will allow the final finish to cling. When it comes out, the piece goes to final detailing, where yet another worker sculpts aluminum into any minor imperfection, some no more significant than pinholes. Then it’s hung back on the overhead rack and sent through a washing station before it’s sprayed layer after layer with one of 21 custom colors developed by Will and Anne. The finish is the same as that used on luxury cars, says Marketing Director Ginny Hofheimer.

At least 10 people work on each piece, for a total of about 40 hours from beginning to end. Together they make about 2,000 pieces a year, which clients order through landscape architects or designers, and even then they have to wait at least 12 weeks for delivery.

“There are expenses to doing it here but rewards to getting it done right,” says Hofheimer. “Customers know the pieces are hand-made and that they have something that’s rare.”

The clatter and grinding in the main work area speak of industry, but enter the upholstery room and everything dampens, the sound sucked into the matriculated foam of cushions and bolts of fabric. Every detail is attended to, perhaps even obsessively. Blair Watson, 29, is in charge of packaging, and she measures each edge of each box, affixes the tape precisely perpendicular to the edge, and writes the labels in calligraphy – pergola, mistress’s balcony, cake room.

She places the labels just so, on the side of the box that aligns with the front of a couch or chair, so that movers know which side will be lightest.

“Some of the guys give me grief, saying I don’t have to be so particular,” she says, “but my philosophy is that the presentation matters.”

Watson has a fine arts degree and works in wood and metal. Glass gave her too little control of the outcome. When co-workers get up from coffee she pushes in each chair, evening them up with the edge of the table. She wears no jewelry at work, even though she makes her own, because it might scratch a finish. The boxes she packs will be shipped “white glove,” delivered and unpacked on site, or to intermediary addresses, where they’re unpacked and the contents wrapped in moving blankets and delivered, to become part of another family’s history.

“We look at this as an extension of our childhood,” says Anne, who lives and gardens with her husband and family in the historic home Locust Grove, in Lynchburg, with seating areas of her company’s furniture throughout the grounds. “What would we like to make next? It’s always something we would like to have ourselves.”

Will lives with his wife and daughter on Monument Avenue in Richmond, their garden formal and welcoming.

“One thing that is important to us,” says Will, “is that the furniture we’re making is going to be a treasured heirloom for someone else.”