Name: Willie Willette
Business Name: Willie Willette Works
Creative/Artistic Categories: Furniture
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Based in Minneapolis, Willie Willette of Willie Willette Works creates magic with a piece of wood. Since establishing his custom design and build studio in 1996, he has designed numerous furniture pieces for both residential homes and commercial spaces around the Twin Cities.
In today’s podcast, we cover Mr. Willette’s design process with clients, how he created his own business, and his advice to other aspiring woodworkers and creatives. Scroll below to view the transcript from the interview as well as photos of from the shop.
Podcast transcription with Willie Willette Works:
The TCDS podcast transcription is sponsored by
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) 0:15
Hello, and welcome to the Twin Cities Design Scene podcast. Today we have Willie Willette on the show. Willie is the owner of Willie Willette Works, a custom design and build company focusing on building bespoke furniture. Welcome to the show, Willie.
Willie Willette 0:30
Why thank you. Thanks for having me.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) 0:32
Yeah, I’m glad you’re here. So let’s get started. I was wondering in your own words, can you tell me a little bit about what you do at Willie Willette Works.
Willie Willette 0:42
Well, you kind of nailed the simple part we design and build custom one of a kind furniture. But that’s really, really broad. We work more in wood than anything else. But we also mix in glass and bronze and other materials. If we get a client who wants to push things, which is what we like to do, we don’t want to build boxes all day, we don’t want to do kitchens, we do one-of-a-kind furniture. And we like, I say “we” because I’ve had a very loyal staff. It’s of course, my business, my name, but not only the staff I have now, but over the last 24 years, I’ve had some wonderful people and wouldn’t exist without their help. But specifically what we build is what the client wants. And sometimes that’s a custom desk, sometimes that’s a lifeguard tower in a loft, which actually we did do and it was really fun.
Willie Willette 1:35
So, we’re not quite limited to furniture. We’ve been fabricators for some photoshoots and things like that. So, we like that, that keeps things keeps things interesting.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) 1:48
So you’re talking about as far as the work that you do, a lot of is built specifically for a client. Walk me through that collaborative design process that you take when you connect with a client for the first time through to the actual delivery of the product.
Willie Willette 2:05
It’s a pretty simple process and doesn’t change much. They come to us with an idea. I tell him that idea is stupid and that we should do it my way. And then eventually we kind of figure out what’s going to happen. Everyone has good ideas, most people don’t have good taste. So sometimes that plays in and it’s really critical I try to be nice enough with them for long enough to see where the piece is going because that’s really critical. And when I can see the environment, it really helps to design.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) 2:33
Do you prefer when people come to you with a lot of inspiration or more just kind of like a blank slate of saying like, “I need a table or a bookcase” or what have you.
Willie Willette 2:44
The blank slate is the best and then the complete “know exactly what they want” is good. The worst is half-and-half. Kind of what I want, kind of know what I want to make out, of because then you get people without a tenant. And then you just spin in circles, and the design process is fine. It’s just much, much, much longer.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) 3:05
So, talk me through as far as a little bit too about the once you actually kind of put it into the fabrication and production, like once you agree on a design?
Willie Willette (TCDS) 3:15
Yep. And they definitely have input on the design, or I let them think that but, but a lot of times, and also, when I have a new client that of course they want to say, “I don’t know exactly what that means.” And I say, “Well, eventually the next job, you’ll just say, ‘I trust you.'” But the first time with the client, you know we will do very concise drawings, lots of samples for stain coloring and things like that. Every idea will be represented in a drawing. By the third time I work with the same client, we don’t even make a drawing. We just show some the dimensions and size and scale and they’re like, “Okay, yeah, you go ahead.” So it’s a trust thing. Of course, like all relationships.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) 4:00
And I should mention that a lot of your clients are both commercial and residential.
Willie Willette 4:07
The commercial is much easier. Residential people think about what’s going to be in their house for 30 years with commercial people are just looking for when their lease is up. So they say, “Oh, it’s just got to be cool for five years.” It’s like, “Well, I know we’re gonna make it really cool.” So then we can do things that are more cutting edge, more trendy, more interesting, because it might look, it won’t ever look bad, but it might be out of place in 15 years. But if it makes it to 17 years, then it’s classic. So I tell people, “Don’t tear this out like at year 12, you’ve just gotta wait. It will be cool again.”
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) 4:44
I was gonna say, with residential and commercial too. I mean, you have to think about, you know, the work that you do in general is built to last, but kind of to your point, you know, residential thinking, you’re 30 years out having almost like an heirloom piece versus in commercial, you could be doing the same sort of thing, but it just gets so much more traffic and so much more use over that duration.
Willie Willette 5:09
Well, the quality is the same regardless. But the timelessness is what can be effective. It’s people still want us to do live edge…just this morning had a client where I said, “No, we’re not going to do that.” And they started asking about a river table and I said, “Don’t even start.”
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) 5:27
A river table?
Willie Willette 5:28
Yeah, it’s the epoxy and wood mix.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) 5:30
Willie Willette 5:31
That crap. That stuff looks old today. That’s already outdated.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) 5:37
You’ve been saying that for a few years now.
Willie Willette 5:40
Well, live edge has been out for like five or six years. And it’s not out. It’s fine if you’ve got one piece or so, but don’t have a new piece made with it. So some of the things we do are timeless. We do book-matched where it’s made out of two single pieces out of the tree on the grain is matched. That’s never going to be out of style
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) 6:01
That’s a little harder to do too, isn’t it?
Willie Willette 6:03
It’s not harder, it’s more expensive. Nothing we do is very hard. That’s another myth. A lot of Woodcraft people do. There isn’t a single thing we can’t learn and there isn’t a single thing we can’t do. It’s just time, how long is it gonna take, and how much does the material cost? We do it in a series of steps that are pretty safe. And not that they can be completely undone. But if you do, if you do the dance correctly, you’re going to be fine. Whereas I have some admiration for like, bronze casters because they pour it in and it’s either gonna work or it’s not. And when it doesn’t, it doesn’t work at all. And do what it does work, it’s magnificent. But we don’t work that way. We very cautiously approach the finish line. It did occur to me the only thing that’s hard to do…the hardest thing for me to learn, and when I taught at MCAD the hardest thing for me to teach and including my younger employees now, is knowing when to stop.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) 6:16
I feel like that’s the case for art in general.
Willie Willette 7:06
Art in general, writing, lots of things. And the people don’t learn to stop have these sometimes interesting pieces, but you always want to add that one thing you think is gonna make it extra. And it doesn’t.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) 7:27
Let’s talk a little bit about how you became a furniture maker since we’re on the topic.
Willie Willette 7:33
It was like the house fell on me, I don’t think I had a choice.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) 7:39
What events in your career led you up to kind of where you’re at right now?
Willie Willette 7:44
Well, actually didn’t think I had a career, but now that you say that, I guess I do. A couple of things growing up in a small town, small farming community, where hard work is not a good idea. It’s a law. The worst thing you could call somebody where I was growing up was lazy. That would be fistfight immediately. That was the worst thing you could be. And I went to a small school, which was a really good fit for me and had no intention of doing what I’m doing now. I worked construction during summers, when I was home from college, I graduated with a degree in English and focus in philosophy. And the hindsight joke is knowing that I’d be working with my hands until I die.
Willie Willette 8:27
But really didn’t know what I was going to do. I graduated into a recession. At that time, the worst recession in the US only be eclipsed by 2008, which was a lot worse. So there were no jobs. So I took a job, I worked construction. And it was good enough to pay for the beer and the girls. So I was okay. And I was ambitious, but I wasn’t focused. So I really didn’t have any idea what I was doing. And if there was anything like a break, it was, it was 50 below zero, so we didn’t have to work. At 40 below zero, we still had to work, but not at 50 below zero. Maybe it was 30 and 40. But it always gets colder as time goes on.
Willie Willette 9:05
But I had the day off. And I’d always gone to the Walker because at that time the Walker was free and I had to pay to go to the Institute, but the Walker was free admission. And so I was a big proponent again, as you talked about the city and the state and a big, more than now than I was then, but still a big…
Willie Willette 9:24
Okay, let’s step back a half step. Knock somebody up, knew I was going to be here for the next 18 years. So, started thinking consciously that I got to do something. And so I was off because it was cold out and I went into the Walker, I heard all these construction sounds. I went into the gallery, and they were actually doing construction. But they had a bunch of artists doing construction rather than construction workers. So I got hired on there as a temp and did things probably literally five times faster and better than anyone else.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) 9:59
Did you just go up and ask somebody, “Hey can I apply to do this stuff?”
Willie Willette 10:05
Yeah, I said, “You guys are building,” and I said, “Are you guys hiring?” They said, “Oh, we’re always hiring temps.” I got hired on as a temp then worked I think a full year and then got hired full time. But it was a great job, best I’ll ever have, most intelligent people I’ve ever worked with, some of the funniest people I’ve ever worked with.
Willie Willette 10:28
And it was great after framing houses and freezing to have like, “Wow, there’s coffee here. And there are smart people here, and there’s art here.” And by my third day, I kind of scared everybody except the people who knew my shtick, and one of them was particularly nice, at lunchtime, on by my third day they go, “Here, I’ll show you something.” So we went over by the theater and the crack the door open. And there was Yo Yo Ma practicing for the show that night. I sat there watched for about five minutes and just turned and said, “I really like it here.”
Willie Willette 11:06
So that was a great fit. Again, there weren’t many jobs. So I did museum work, I’d love the Walker, I probably could have stayed there forever if I didn’t have any ambition to move on or do more. And actually a good lesson from the Walker was everything I was doing. I got a pat on the back, it was all behind the scenes, it wasn’t unfair. It that’s how it’s supposed to be. But I busted my ass for a really good show that we traveled for a while called, In the Spirit of Fluxus. And the curator quite deservedly got a directorship at a new museum. And I got two Twins tickets, and I wasn’t mad, I wasn’t jealous. I just said, “If I’m gonna work this hard. I’m gonna put my name on it.”
Willie Willette 11:56
And that’s when I started the business. And I didn’t know that I’d be building custom furniture, I just knew I’d be building custom things. And it pretty quickly turned almost exclusively into furniture. But I like to keep my foot in the door on some of the other things, too.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) 12:09
Is it pretty much just initially, early on, you said you want to create custom things and it turned into furniture? Was that just because people are coming to you with more of a demand for furniture?
Willie Willette 12:19
Yeah, I thought I’d be working with a lot more artists because I had kept doing that when I left the Walker. But that didn’t really grow. And I didn’t necessarily want it to because working with artists is a special challenge. I enjoy the work very much and enjoy the people very much. But quite frankly, furniture is easier.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) 12:37
Yeah. So with creating your own shop and you establish that and what year again?
Willie Willette 12:43
’96. 1996. That’s important to note.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) 12:50
Yes. I would be amazed if we’re talking of the other ’96. So with kind of the creation process. What is your favorite part of the whole creation process? Because you’ve done it all?
Willie Willette 13:06
Yeah, no, it’s the design. It’s meeting with the people and asking them what they want. And that’s also sort of one of my weaknesses for teaching is I can give the students the tools to design. And I can show them the process of design. But when they particularly ask, “Well, how do you design?” I say, “I can’t tell you because it’s very, very, very intuitive.” I have just paid attention for a long time. I mean, even as a kid buildings and things. Architecture has been an inspiration for me since I was a little kid.
Willie Willette 13:45
And then just being a lifelong museum-goer. And people like myself, it’s like what are they like to do when you go to a city? So it’s just I like to walk, sometimes with a beer wrapped in a brown paper bag.
Jennie Eukel 13:58
But just seeing that architecture…
Willie Willette 14:02
Seeing the public art and architecture and wandering in a few museums, it’s just an absolutely full and happy day for me.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) 14:07
So when you are working, you’ve said it before. Live edge is currently not on your favorites list…
Willie Willette 14:14
Right. That’s well put, because I won’t say never, no. If somebody says, “This is exactly what I want, and I know it, and I’ve wanted for 20 years,” I’m not going to insult them and say, “No, we won’t do it.” We will not do a river table, but we will do live edge. Because live edge was popular in the late 40s and 50s. And it’ll be popular again. And it’s not a bad thing. It’s just being overused. Just like rustic has been overused. If I go into one more restaurant, barn wood and what are those lights… Edison bulbs.
Willie Willette 14:50
Because we’re custom, we have to stay ahead of the trends and hopefully help create the trends, not follow them.
Willie Willette 14:56
So we have peaked with our input on bronze. And I loved it. We mixed bronze and Walnut a lot. But that’s changing too because now you’re starting to see all the bath fixtures in gold and things like that. So we will continue to use that sparingly, but we won’t use it as a large portion of what we’re doing.
Willie Willette 15:20
The next popular wood probably already is Ash, especially here, because there’s so much of it coming down and it has stayed inexpensive because it’s all coming down and it’s a great wood.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) 15:33
That’s lighter to start out.
Willie Willette 15:35
Lighter, it takes stain really well, so we could do a lot of different colors. I think Elm is probably just initiating now and will continue to get more popular. Elm has been a neglected word for a long time because it’s hard to work with that grows in a twist. So if you don’t like a challenge, don’t worry. We don’t work with Elm but I hate to say it, but I like a challenge.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) 16:01
So those would be kind of the…well, first of all, you’ve heard it here first with the wood trends…Willie Willette Works. So I’m just curious as far as with running your business, when you kind of first popped into it or even now, for that matter, is there a piece of advice that you have received from anyone else about running your business that you kind of took to heart and have used throughout running your practice or running your business for that matter.
Willie Willette 16:31
In almost all the cliches, even the annoying ones have a grain of truth. So they’re not to be completely ignored. But I actually did at one point boil down not my design philosophy, so much as my work philosophy, and it’s what my grandpa used to say, “Shut up and get to work.” And he didn’t say it often. But it’s pretty much the cure for everything, just get to work if you want to keep it nicer. And all the other parts of the advice can be sort of thrown into that. And there are things I say like, “The hardest thing for me to teach you is knowing when to stop,” things like that. I probably have five or six but really the most important one is get to work.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) 17:20
Last question. And this has nothing to do with your work. This is a bonus freebie. What do you like doing in your extra time when you’re not busy in your shop? I know you’re talking about in travel, an ideal day for you is just walking around enjoying architecture, art museums. I would imagine that’s probably a good day-to-day thing.
Willie Willette 17:44
I don’t do much and COVID has made it even less. I work a lot and it’s not always because I have to. I’ve kind of gotten a little bit of a rut. I don’t see my friends as often as I’d like now because more because of COVID but even before because most have kids still at home, although that’s changing pretty quickly. I sold my motorcycle, my beloved motorcycle, because it was just too much of a risk…not danger wise, just said I’d never know if I make it back to the studio. The ’74 Norton Commando…the best looking bike ever made.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) 18:18
That was a fixture in your studio for a long time.
Willie Willette 18:22
Well, hopefully on the road too, but I just needed something more reliable. So that was kind of a heartbreak.
Willie Willette 18:29
So what do I do? I read a lot, that hasn’t ever changed.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) 18:32
Yeah, you collect, what was it…the first, was it the first editions?
Willie Willette 18:36
Just hardcovers. Very briefly, when my daughter went off to college, and I thought it wouldn’t be that bad because I was a half-time parent, week-to-week. Single parent. So she went off to college and I realized I didn’t seem to have much time except for the weeping and drinking. So I knew I needed to sort of create a hobby because most people’s hobby would be what I do all day long. But I had been in Goodwill and saw a hardcover copy of Cold Mountain. And was like, “I wanted to read that.” So I picked it up for $1. And then through that, and through my daughter being gone, I started thinking about this sort of adventure and I made a plan to find every book I’ve ever read in hardcover, but no bookstores, no Amazon, no online, everything had to be estate sales, church sales, garage sales, Goodwill, and so it became much more about the hunt, not really the find. And so I and I still enjoy doing it is going through books and seen a final one. Either that I haven’t read or that I have read because I never really owned any books. They’re always from the library.
Willie Willette 19:54
So my adventure got me probably at least two-thirds of the way there. They’re all boxed up now. This are the empty shells are out on the studio on boxes as the move and now it becomes the question, “Do I keep them?” because I don’t really re-read. Do I keep them except for like maybe 10 favorites? Or do I get rid of them and take them back to Goodwill?
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) 20:20
That’s a hard question. I’m not going to give you advice, but I just know my own grandmother would always just say books are meant to be read. So I’ve tried to take that to heart.
Willie Willette 20:34
The counterpoint to that is books make great wallpaper. They look really, really good. I’ve got five of those cases. And when my whole collection is there, it looks great.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) 20:50
Yes, when you say wallpaper, you mean like putting them into the shelves, not ripping the pages out.
Willie Willette 20:55
No, no, no. Comic books are good for that, though.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) 21:02
Well, thank you so much for your time today, Willie, I really appreciate it.
Willie Willette 21:06
You ask me to talk to myself? Gee, that’s really hard. I’m the middle child of eight kids. I can talk about myself all day.
Jennie Eukel (TCDS) 21:12
I figured this would be a really easy ask. So, thank you so much for talking with me today. You can view Willie’s work at williewilletteworks.com. His work is also on Instagram and Facebook at Willie Willette Works. Thanks for listening in. Don’t forget to subscribe and leave a review of the podcast. For the latest updates, You can follow along on Instagram and Facebook at Twin Cities Design Scene.
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