Willette holds a bourbon board made of solid
walnut Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018, in Minneapolis,
— Willie Willette majored in English literature and
never took a woodworking class in his life.
improbably became a masterful maker of one-of-a-kind
custom wood furniture.
the honesty of it,” he said, “and I didn’t want to
work in the corporate world.”
designs, builds and crafts arresting yet functional
pieces for homes and businesses in his sprawling studio,
Willie Willette Works.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
when he discovered his talent at designing and making
things, and in 1996, launched his custom furniture and
woodworking business in the Minneapolis Warehouse
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.
majority of his creations are made of locally sourced
wood, including red and white oak, walnut, elm and ash.
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?1/2 inches thick and start at $199,
at local craft fairs. He’s also translated that
artistic effect for dining-room-table tops.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
to use a more powerful battery so the light will spark a
little more,” he said.
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.
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.