Willie Willette majored in English literature and never took a woodworking class in his life.
Yet he improbably became a masterful maker of one-of-a-kind custom wood furniture.
“I like the honesty of it,” he said, “and I didn’t want to work in the corporate world.”
Willette designs, builds and crafts arresting yet functional pieces for homes and businesses in his sprawling studio, Willie Willette Works, on the second floor of the Art & Architecture building on University Avenue SE. in Minneapolis.
His one-of-a-kind furniture, influenced by Asian and midcentury modern design, is minimalist and simple “without a lot of bells or whistles,” he said. “I like to let the materials speak.”
Fate carved out Willette’s unexpected craftsman career after he graduated from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. He had worked construction during the summers, and continued after he graduated during the 1980s recession, mastering framing houses, pouring concrete and installing roofs.
He got his lucky break on a cold winter day when he went to an exhibit at the Walker Art Center. Following the sound of pounding, he came upon a crew building walls, displays and installing lighting for a new exhibit in another gallery. It looked a lot more artistic and appealing than housing construction jobs.
“I asked if they were hiring,” he recalled. He got the job and worked for the Walker exhibition department for six years, followed by a stint at the Minnesota Children’s Museum. “I learned about good design from artists and curators,” he said.
That’s when he discovered his talent at designing and making things, and in 1996, launched his custom furniture and woodworking business in the Minneapolis Warehouse District.
The furniture evolves from sketches and 3-inch-tall doll-like models, with his staff of four completing the fabrications. “The models are fun, and perfectly explain what a client is getting,” he said.
The majority of his creations are made of locally sourced wood, including red and white oak, walnut, elm and ash.
Even something as simple as a cutting board is turned into a work of art. Willette first cross-cuts sections from a long piece of durable wood. Then he turns the sections so they mirror each other, creating a geometric design. He often sells the book-matched wood-grain cutting boards, which are 1 ½ inches thick and start at $199, at local craft fairs. He’s also translated that artistic effect for dining-room-table tops.
Among other signature works is the curved-back Raleigh chair, an amalgam of wood, cowhide seat and decorative bronze pin details. The client customizes the chair by choosing the different elements. “I went through 200 cowhides to find the most interesting pattern,” he said of a finished solid walnut chair in his studio.
His work portfolio includes album storage cabinets, bookcases that fit into tight niches, built-in beds, credenzas, kitchen islands, a company conference table that converts into a ping-pong table, and even a bronze and walnut bassinet for his granddaughter.
“People come here when they can’t find what they want,” he said of his 22-year-old business. “And are willing to pay for custom design.”
Willette also experiments on unconventional furniture applications. He’s still perfecting a prototype cocktail table composed of curvy red glass legs — which light up — and an ebony-stained oak top.
“I want to use a more powerful battery so the light will spark a little more,” he said.
If you’ve strolled through a Minneapolis park, you may have seen one of the dozens of movable oak park benches his studio designed and built for the Minneapolis Good Chair Project. The benches seat two and can be repositioned for light, shade or to view the lake.
Willette also takes “custom” to the next level by fulfilling offbeat requests from clients, such as fabricating a massive wooden sign with bright holiday lights spelling out a political statement. The Minneapolis homeowner displayed it from his second-story balcony facing Lake of the Isles last week.
Willette moved from the Warehouse District to the Art & Architecture building in 2004. He needed more space, and his rent had risen substantially. “The Warehouse District got hot,” he said.
Now, once again, gentrification is forcing him to move his studio. The nearby Metro Green Line has sparked new development of housing and businesses in his building, so in spring 2019, he will relocate to 1700 University Av. NE.
He plans to keep rockin’ the wood as long as the business continues to be successful.
“I like to make things,” he said. “It’s a mixture of everything I see — art, nature, buildings and architecture.”
Willie Willette Works, 3338 University Av. SE., 612-333-3022, williewilletteworks.com.