In a corner of Kelly DeWitt’s workshop, housed in a nondescript industrial park in Northeast Austin, stands an upright piano covered in sawdust. On breaks, the 25-year-old Houston native often sits here and plays old country songs (her current favorite is Merle Haggard’s “Misery and Gin”), the notes echoing throughout the 1,600-square-foot woodworking and welding shop, creating a perfect juxtaposition of rural and urban, natural and refined. This same juxtaposition is present in DeWitt’s handmade furniture and housewares, which are crisp and geometric but also heavily inspired by traditional American design, especially the Shaker style (she prides herself on thoughtful, sturdy construction and builds her pieces without using any nails or screws).
So it’s not surprising that DeWitt’s own life is a study in contrasts: though she works in the city, she lives in the country, having moved out to the tiny town of Webberville (population 413) two years ago with her steel-fabricator boyfriend, Travis Norman. “We live on top of a hill overlooking unobstructed farmland as far as the eye can see,” she says. “It’s very freeing to sit on my back porch and be surrounded by the natural landscape and the sounds of wildlife. I feel a literal breath of fresh air that I didn’t get shut away in our previous home in Austin proper, and that filters into my work undeniably.”
Q&A with Kelly DeWitt
What do you enjoy about working with wood?
It demands a respect for the material, which is so appealing to me. I build everything by hand and spend time planning out my design, my cuts, my construction, ensuring that every step of my process is rooted in longevity. But ultimately it is the wood itself that tells the stories in each piece of furniture, and
I love that.
What kind of wood are you working with right now?
My latest collection is all walnut. I am really drawn to its grain, its darkness, and the subtleties of it. I never use stains. I use all natural finishes. I spend a lot of time sifting through piles of it at the lumber store.
You make a lot of plant stands and use greenery in photos of your work. What do you like about plants?
I am endlessly inspired by the wild, organic quality of plants. My plant stands have simple, clean lines—I weld them from a quarter-inch steel rod, and each one comes with a sleek white pot [custom-made and hand-cast by Aaron Ward, in Austin]—and alone, they could almost disappear. But paired with untamed ivy or a succulent arrangement, the design is elevated by that contrast between the hard lines of the stand and the flowing greenery.
What was the first piece you ever made?
After college, I was working full-time for the Harry Ransom Center. I would go to work at seven a.m., finish my day at four-thirty p.m., and head straight to the shop until ten-thirty or later. I started with building cedar boxes and spent the entire year working on my craft, learning as much as I could and dreaming of building large-scale pieces. The first big job I was commissioned for was a solid cedar table with eight-foot-long benches for a family in Elgin.
Has it ever been difficult to be a woman in this industry?
It really hasn’t. I’ve been playing in bands since I was fourteen, which is, sadly, another mostly male-dominated field, and I also have two older brothers, so I’m used to being the only girl. The guys at the lumber store are always helpful and just psyched that anyone is interested in having in-depth chats about wood. And if I ever do feel affected by the unevenness in the industry, I remember that the most important thing is for me to focus on my craft and move forward with my business.
What tool do you enjoy working with most?
The band saw. I like it because it is totally free-form. My favorite thing to do after a long day is to take some scrap wood, go out to my band saw, and make wooden knives. I finish them off by hand-rubbing mineral oil and beeswax on them. It takes me a couple hours to finish one, and then I walk inside and eat dinner with the knife I just made. There is nothing better!
For more information, go to kkdw.co.