Timeless Garden Party

If you could peek into Dustin Hoffman’s backyard, you might see furniture made by the Richmond firm McKinnon and Harris, whose products are both functional and inspired. 

Imagine arriving at a lavish country estate. The lady of the house invites you to join her in the garden for tea. You pass the sweeping staircase, the grand period furniture, the impressive family portraits, then walk out into lush gardens in bloom … and there the impressive tableau ends. Once-beautiful wrought iron chairs encircle a once-stylish table, topped with a powdery coating of rust dust.

Beautiful homes deserve beautiful appointments. For generations upon generations, owners of oceanfront homes, sea-bound yachts or meticulously tended gardens on the hurricane path have been doomed to continually replace outdoor furniture. Teak loses its luster after a few years, and wrought iron is heavy and rust-prone. So modern manufacturers have turned to amped-up cast aluminum, produced in faraway places where labor is cheap and ‘standards’ is just a foreign word.

McKinnon and Harris, in Richmond, has a different philosophy. All of McKinnon and Harris’ “estate furniture” is artfully constructed by hand, using extruded or solid bar aluminum for long, hard wear. Unlike conventional aluminum furniture, the company’s pieces, from chairs and chaises to tables and bar carts, are designed to withstand the tests of time and changing styles. Company officials say that 30 people work on every order until two senior craftsmen sign off on the finished product. “Everything bears a relationship with the human hand,” says Will Massie, who founded McKinnon and Harris with his sister Anne in 1991. “While we do make use of high technology whenever possible, it’s more like handcrafting a beautiful pair of shoes,” he adds. “We just don’t compromise on anything.”

There is no inventory at McKinnon and Harris, which is named for the Massies’ grandmothers. Will and Anne design the collections, which often begin as artistic scribbles (known in the workshop as “napkin drawings”) inspired by works of art or museum-quality furniture. Then each piece passes from hand to hand until it is finished and tested. The entire process, from order to completion, takes 14 weeks. The result? When the country estate passes to the next generation, there won’t be any quibbling over who replaces the rickety, age-worn garden furniture. “The defining element,” says Will, “is that it has to be something that we would put in our own house or garden.”

McKinnon and Harris is not a standard retail operation. Interior designers typically buy the furniture for their clients, after seeing it in showrooms in New York, Seattle, Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami. (The firm is planning to open a New York City showroom of its own.) Prices range from four to five figures. Because most of their orders come through designers, the folks at McKinnon and Harris rarely know where their wares are headed. “But we often figure it out,” says marketing director Ginny Hofheimer. She says that actor Dustin Hoffman owns McKinnon and Harris furniture, and so does retired General Electric CEO Jack Welch, among other luminaries.

A time line in the McKinnon and Harris catalog pegs the arrival of Anne and Will’s forebears slightly to the right of the Jamestown crew. A century or so later, Major Thomas Massie witnessed Cornwallis’ 1781 surrender at Yorktown. The time line marks impressive world events, as well as signal moments in the Massie family history, including Great-Great Uncle Jack Adams’ memorable assertion in 1925, “Why stand when you can sit? Why sit when you can lie down?” (Uncle Jack would later inspire the company’s duVal-Alexander Day Bed.)

As gentle Virginia ladies will, the Massie women over the generations cultivated beautiful gardens, the kind preserved in paintings and photographs. In fact, Great Aunt Martha Massie received the coveted Landscape Prize at the Annual Exhibition of the Southern States Art League in Atlanta in 1937. And until Hurricane Hazel blew through Lynchburg in 1953, Anne and Will’s grandmother Annie Scott Harris Robertson kept an elegant city garden on historic Rivermont Avenue. Their mother is nationally known watercolorist Anne Adams Robertson Massie. “[She] is a gifted painter, a very intuitive colorist,” says Anne, adding that both her mother and father, a retired physician, are passionate gardeners. “One of the greatest gifts that our parents gave us is a love and deep connection with nature,” says Anne.

The creation of garden furniture is an obvious evolution. “Anyone who gardens knows that you are definitely in it for the long haul,” says Anne. “When you plant something, it will likely be at its most beautiful long after you’re gone. I think there’s something very romantic in that kind of gesture, the idea that you’re making something for the future, for an unknown audience but know with certainty that someone, even if it’s just one person, will love it.”

The family’s appreciation for art and aesthetics led Anne to a master’s in art history at Virginia Commonwealth University. Meanwhile, Will, 47, followed “a more conventional route,” working for a bank. “I did not enjoy what I was doing,” he says. “As a child, I always loved building things. … The business grew out of this passion for wanting to build beautiful things that lasted.”

The first pieces were wrought iron. “We had a nostalgic feeling as well as a practical view about wrought iron,” Anne says. “The whole tradition of ironwork in the South had an allure. We believed—erroneously, at first—that only wrought iron, steel, would be the most enduring material.”

Fifteen-plus years ago, the aluminum lawn furniture that dominated the mass market had the approximate shelf life of peanut butter. After the first dozen uses, it looked pretty much the same, but it wasn’t as good as it once had been. Joints get creaky. Rust sets in. The comfort level degrades.

Anne calls aluminum an “amazing material—a modern metal that has always been aligned with the arts. We quickly realized that we could create a more enduring version of aluminum.” The extruded, solid-bar aluminum that McKinnon and Harris uses fits the bill.

Artisans don’t always like making practical things. And that’s doubly true for artists. Yet, in the gigantic McKinnon and Harris workshop on a former lumberyard in Richmond’s industrial Scott’s Addition district, everyone looks lively. More than a third of the workforce comprises art school graduates. Quality is the mantra. Large printed signs reading “Is It Right?”—in bold six-inch letters—hang over warehouse doorways and on walls.

When the company found the space four years ago, it was mostly just that: space. When the workshop was built, the roof featured 29 skylights. “We must have natural lighting,” says plant manager Mark Perkins, “especially in the coating process.” He says the firm does more than just meet OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) standards—it spent $125,000 on a dust collector. “You can imagine what inhaling aluminum shavings and dust can do,” adds Perkins. “This keeps our grinders healthy. It doesn’t improve efficiency, just quality of life for our employees.”

Perhaps most important, the Massies believe in the artistry of the work. It nurtures the soul, and that, according to former architectural blacksmith and sculptor Jan Rappe, who oversees the company’s furniture finishers, is what sets McKinnon and Harris apart from other successful commercial enterprises. “When I was doing blacksmithing, there was never an issue of compromise. Here, it’s the same. That part I really like.” Customers feel the same.

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