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Out of the box
Scathain collective creates art from pure imagination

Photos by Dan Bishop

April 8, 2013

"You lean into the cracks and let the opportunities find you," says John McWilliam of his successful custom furniture and design collective called Scathain.

John McWilliamís footsteps echo down a cracked gray alley just down the street from Milwaukeeís Iron Horse Hotel. He stops at the entrance to one of the imposing warehouse buildings that seem to have been standing there, patiently, forever.

"We donít have a sign yet," he says. But "Scathain," the name of McWilliamís custom furniture and design collective, is scrawled in chalk on weathered bricks just to the side of the door. Scathain is the Gaelic term for mirror, he explains.

The door swings open to McWilliamís domain. Hand-hewn beams from crumbling barns and giant wooden pillars salvaged from factory ruins are stacked on the floor. Lengths of metal mesh and braided cable, rescued from junkyards, wait for resurrection and bulky iron cogs keep company with gleaming sheets of metal. On a nearby table, bottles filled with chemical potions are ready to transform glass into singular works of art.

Scathainís staff consists of a dozen artisans creating original pieces that often combine reclaimed materials with new materials treated with patinas and other finishes to look as if they have stories to tell.

Scathain artisans include blacksmith Chris Leslie, metal artist and designer Christof Sander, metal artist and casting specialist Sean Wiler, metal artist Katerina Sanerib, artist and senior carpenter Tim Prendergast, head carpenter Corey Prendergast, artist and carpenter Zack Lutz, metalurgist Sandra Horse, finishing specialist Garret Elward, silver specialist and designer Kyle Thompson, and production manager Eli Rosenblatt.

A "rustic industrial" piece that Scathain designed and created for the Iron Horse Hotel ó the souvenir cabinet standing just to the right of the check-in desk ó is an example. The cabinet, McWilliam says, is "a timeless combination of metal and wood. It could have been where Napoleon kept his hat."

McWilliam, who had been a painter and plasterer using Old World techniques, took his first Iron Horse assignment almost on a dare, as the interior of the hotel was beginning to come together. He was asked to refurbish a collection of old bar stools that had been purchased on eBay, and he had to do it in record time. When he delivered, owner Tim Dixon and the hotelís design firm, Company B, began sending more projects his way. "You lean into the cracks and let the opportunities find you. Thatís what makes this business so exciting. There are always new opportunities," McWilliam says.

The Iron Horse could be considered a showroom for Scathainís work. Outside the hotel, a direction sign artfully assembled from various and sundry bits of machinery greets visitors. In its private dining room, a monumental cabinet recovered from an old Chicago pharmacy, with its flaking, mirrored glass, is the focal point. All the frames in the bar were custom-made from metal mesh. The long expanse of glass separating the barís dining area from the kitchen was silvered by McWilliam into an arresting abstract work of art ó the look is contemporary, but the piece would also have been at home in an ancient Greek dressing chamber. "We bring beautiful stuff into the world," McWilliam says. "And the world deserves to have it."

One of McWilliamís most satisfying projects was developing a line of silvered tiles for luxury tile retailer Ann Sacks. He also was tapped by Christian Dior to create customized silvered glass for the fashion houseís product displays.

Interior designers often turn to Scathain when they want an original piece, like a custom-built range hood or unique countertop, and the firm has established solid relationships with building contractors as well.

McWilliam credits much of Scathainís success to help from local companies, like Wisconsin Shower Door, where he learned about working with glass, and Ivarson Manufacturing, where he learned to weld. "Theyíve been believing in me all this time and putting up with someone going through growing pains," he says.

But creative challenges seem to fuel McWilliam and his crew. They could spend months drawing designs and producing prototypes and samples before settling on an idea. "You have to be willing to say yes to something you canít do yet," he says. Every project has its own learning curve and the trick is often deciding when to proceed with a piece and when to junk it and begin again.

But the reward is the chance to produce pieces that McWilliam says "are not cookie-cutter. These are things that are dreamed up."

"Weíre all indigenous artisans from the shores of Lake Michigan," McWilliam says, "and itís the highest order that we are aspiring to." When it all comes together, he says, the result is "serious magic."

To see examples of Scathainís work, visit


This story ran in the April 2013 issue of: