Scátháin; Object Makers & Craftspeople

Scátháin; Object Makers & Craftspeople

John McWilliam:  Designer. Metalsmith. Furniture Maker

John McWilliam has a special relationship with wood – particularly old and soulful pieces, salvaged from long-gone buildings.

“I’m always on a hunt for repurposed wood,” says the founder and owner of Scátháin, a workshop, studio and atelier in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “Some wood has no interest. Some is, ‘Oh my god I need that!’ It might not be attached to a current project, but I feel that it has a story to tell one day.”

McWilliam has a story of his own, and it’s told in every curve of forged steel, each hand-made drawer pull on bespoke chests of drawers, the rustic/industrial-chic interiors he and his team have created for luxury hotels, and the mirrors that started McWilliam on his artisanal journey. The name of his company, pronounced “skuh-thayn,” is Gaelic for “mirror”; the mirrors in question are veined and clouded, looking like ancient reflections of air, water and energy.

The inspiration for art mirrors happened back in 2008, when McWilliam’s first customer and collaborator gave him the keys to a warehouse full of building materials rescued from an 1800s structure. “There were a whole ton of industrial steel windows,” he recalls. “My client said, let’s make these into mirrors! We’ll sell them on eBay!”

An openwork iron frame plays counterpoint to the dreamy refractions and reflections of a signature Scátháin mirror.

eBay never happened. Instead, McWilliam got his hands on old-fashioned “silvering” materials and techniques, and transformed mere mirrors into dimensional works of art. “I ended up going crazy with the finishes,” he recalls. He eventually developed unique techniques involving silver nitrate, etching, pre-staining of the glass, and multiple layers of silvering. The resulting mirrors have been described as “alluring disruptions in smooth glass.”

Another view of the desk shows a computer screen; it has emerged from the desk via a push-button contraption. When the screen is retracted, the desktop becomes perfectly flat once again. Note the desk legs; wood and metal are flush and symmetrically tapered, a sign of thoughtful – and skilled – craftsmanship.
Looking inside the credenza is a steel file box. The hardware is custom made.

McWilliam’s mirrors marked the beginning of a lucrative career as a maker and a designer, but it was by no means his first artistic endeavor. The Milwaukee native, one of seven kids, was born with an artistic soul. He started playing classical guitar as a child (André Segovia is a musical hero) and, along with his brothers, spent years pursuing a serious music career with a series of all-original bands. While seeking their big break, John made a living painting houses. “I ended up doing high-end decorative painting,” he says. “I literally climbed the ladder of painting.”

When the recession of ’08 hit, McWilliam’s client pool dried up. “I was left with nothing to do.” Enter Tim Dixon and the project that would eventually become The Iron Horse, a hotel and restaurant complex that has helped make Milwaukee a destination for motorcycle enthusiasts (and others). McWilliam’s work is all over the property; from an initial first batch of old barstools, restored in record time, he has manufactured furniture, light fixtures and finishes for the place; his original mirror prototype still hangs there, and he’s recently embarked on a major upholstery project for the hotel.

Upholstery is one of the newest services offered by Scátháin, which is housed in a 45,000 square foot factory in Milwaukee’s Fifth Ward. McWilliam, who started as a one-man shop, seems still slightly astonished by the popularity of his company’s products – clients include Kohler, A-list designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard, actor Neil Patrick Harris, and at least one Kardashian – and is perpetually in awe of the talents of his 30-person crew. “We have wood workers, metal smiths, designers. We have expert artisans that come in with a lot of knowledge, and also creative people that we train. All we need is a good work ethic and a knack for working with your hands. You can come in as a metal work student and eventually become a department head.” McWilliam notes that Scátháin has become a destination for artisans across the country. “There’s a line of people waiting to get in, specifically for blacksmithing.” Scátháin’s current resident blacksmith is Ann Klicka, who is also revered as a teacher and a sculptor.

A many-drawer dresser is made from walnut surrounded by angle iron and faced with mirrors. Note the hand-forged drawer pulls, a hallmark of McWilliam’s designs.

Much of the company’s growth has been in its tile department, thanks to a magic moment involving John’s cousin Tom McWilliam (who did the photography for this story). Tom was on a photo shoot in New York for Kohler, and happened to be within earshot of designer Ann Sacks, a world leader in the tile industry. He overheard the director bemoaning an unreliable European manufacturer; Tom spoke up and mentioned John’s operation, located right in America’s heartland. Scátháin has been producing high-end tiles for Ann Sacks ever since, and their relationship has led to several full-scale projects, including design and finish work at Lodge Kohler, the company’s four-diamond hotel in Green Bay (imagine that spa experience!). There in the lobby, guests are welcomed by “jewel box” check-in desks, each framed by backdrops of McWilliam’s signature mirrors.

Furniture is a significant part of Scátháin’s output; the company is known for chests and credenzas featuring mirror-front drawers. It is a style that has since been copied by commercial makers, but never matched in quality and craftsmanship. As the company’s web site states: “We are a design/build firm that combines Old World techniques with Midwestern work ethic to craft artistic furnishings and functional accents that last longer than a lifetime.” Also: “We don’t use glue guns.”

Interior designers and architects routinely seek Scátháin’s products and services. “We enjoy that,” says McWilliam. But he’s also excited about one-on-one collaborations, and values the taste level of his clientele. “Our work is precise,” he notes. “Much like riflery, metal and wood are flush.” He points out a desk leg that starts out as (type of wood?) and ends in (type of metal?). “The leg is symmetrically tapered,” he says. “Not the easiest way, but important. Anybody else would have made a square leg.”

Sometimes, design is inspired by existing objects. A 2011 table is anchored by a 150-pound iron cog, forged for an industrial machine of bygone days. But what happens if a client wants several copies of that very table? Therein lies the problem with one-of-a-kind pieces made from found and rescued objects: they can’t be replicated. This conundrum is exactly why Scátháin keeps expanding its manufacturing capabilities. “I promote cast prototypes,” says McWilliam. “We have foundry people on staff, they can manufacture a table base of cast iron – or six. We don’t have to find them in a dumpster anymore.”

Yet when describing the success of his company, John McWilliam still talks in musical terms. “This is very much like being in a crazy band, signed to 10 major record labels. But you have to keep creating album after album, you’ve got to stay on top of your game… you’ve got to keep the hits coming.”

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