Anne and Will Massie are rooted deep in Virginia soil, the sister and brother raised in the American South with a love of family and tradition, and of the artistry and engineering of the heirlooms passed from one generation to the next. As children they played in their grandmothers’ gardens – one formal, the other country – and grew vegetables they sold in their own farm stand. They listened to stories of meals shared at the dining room table, of confidences whispered on the garden bench, of babies lulled to sleep in the antique rocker, and they developed a reverence both for the family history attached to physical objects and for the fine craftsmanship that allowed those objects to endure.
In 1991 they were living one above the other in a duplex in the museum district in the historic city of Richmond. Anne was trained as a painter and Will was working as a banker, a job that did not bring him joy, when they decided they would once again work together, this time building heirloom-quality outdoor furniture for their own and other people’s families. Each piece would be crafted like the antiques they admired, with fine materials and elegant lines, and the engineering and sturdiness to last generations, even in the harshest of weather, and because they would be made by hand they would be rare, and thus even more cherished by their owners.
“We have all of these memories, all of these attachments to furniture,” says Will. “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. “We wanted to do something that had a real permanence to it, something that would be enduring.”
They named their company McKinnon and Harris, after the maiden names of their grandmothers, to honor them for their gorgeous gardens.
They started with steel, working with a welder in a space so small that it had electricity but no bathroom, and only a bag phone for communicating with the outside world. They took inspiration from English garden furnishings, 200-year-old European pattern books and early American furniture designs. Their first chair was the Gothic, its sleek lines recalling the points of Gothic arches. Their next line was the Keswick, which had a sweeping geometric interplay of diamonds and ellipses reminiscent of the American Federal period.
They asked their mother, nationally acclaimed watercolor artist Anne Adams Robertson Massie, to paint the cover for their first stylebook, and she’s done every one since.
“We loved the feeling watercolor brings to a garden scene,” says Anne, “and it just made sense to ask her to do it. After all, she’s one half of the pair who planted the seeds of McKinnon and Harris in the first place.”
Her children paid her with a set of their earliest furniture, still in their parents’ garden today. Steel rusts, 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 artisans in their workshop, plus sales associates at their showrooms in New York and London and Los Angeles.
Anne and Will Massie 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, in a shop they say is more like Santa’s Workshop than a factory, taking meticulous pride in their part of the process.
First comes the design, then the prototype and the troop of employees of every size to test for the pitch of the back, the comfort of the seat. If the designers can’t create both beauty and comfort they start over, because both matter. Next comes the kit list, from which come legs and arms and braces for bottoms, cut by a saw handler and then bent with the venerable Hossfeld bender around half-moon dies that are custom-made to give each piece the curving elegance of the original vision.
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. For sofas the pieces number in the hundreds, each exactingly cut and machined and then clamped to a precise pitch before the welder lowers his face mask and begins, each of the hundreds of welds calculated to adjust for the conductivity and morphing of the metal. The quality of his work is both professionally and personally important to him, since his are the initials that will grace the bottom of the chair, serving as his signature and that of the other artists.
Those welds disappear under the hands of a finisher, who works magic with hand-held grinders and sandpaper, spending anywhere from 90 minutes to eight hours to make the chair or table or bench look like it has always been one smooth piece.
The work is laborious and highly physical, and it takes an artist’s eye and sculptor’s hands to shape the welds until all you see is the swoop of the leg, the angle of the arm. Grind too much and you leave a divot; grind too little and you leave a bump. Only when the finisher thinks it’s perfect will he send a chair or table or bench 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 one of the 21 luxury architectural-grade custom colors to cling.
The piece is inspected and stamped with the initials of the welder, then run through a complex multistage chemical wash before it’s heated to nearly 200 degrees and sent to the finishing booth for a process so painstaking that the worker there counts each pass of the sprayer, ten up and ten down, ten left and ten right, counting, always counting, moving in a precise pattern as he reaches ten and twenty and thirty – all the way to 210 for tabletop and 1,200 for a duVal-Alexander chair – the primer first and then the final coat, each layer baked on in the 420-degree oven.
The noise here is industrial, but step through the door into the upholstery room and the sound dampens, absorbed as it is into reticulated foam and bolts of fabric. Here each cushion is hand cut from NASA-quality foam that allows water to drain. It’s wrapped with Dacron and fit into a custom-made jacket, the upholstery chosen to suit the intended destination, the zippers hidden discreetly in back and not stretched around the sides in a touch that makes the work more difficult but the look more tailored. Even the poly thread is guaranteed for life.
From beginning to end at least 10 people work on each piece, for a total of about 40 hours. Only then is it affixed with the bronze McKinnon and Harris tag that proclaims the workers’ pride in each rare and handmade piece.
Today, McKinnon and Harris furniture graces the pool at the estate in Palm Beach, the lakeside terrace in Switzerland, the private beach in the south of France. They’re in homes and gardens in Vail and Aspen, Australia and the United Kingdom, and on the decks of yachts. The designs are crisp and elegant, classical and modern, and serve as showpieces both in the lush green of a summer garden and the stark white of winter.
They are built in the great metal-working tradition of Richmond, with sophisticated joinery and precision fit, and the personal pride of everyone at the McKinnon and Harris workshop, but especially that of Anne and Will Massie.
“The thing that’s important to us,” says Will, “is that the furniture we’re making is going to become a treasured heirloom for someone else.”
That is why the people of McKinnon and Harris build things the old-fashioned way – by hand.