lean into the cracks and let the opportunities find you,"
says John McWilliam of his successful custom furniture and
design collective called Scathain.
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,
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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."
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
To see examples
of Scathainís work, visit