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KKDW

One Weldin', Woodworkin', Woman

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Each of her designs draw from a distant age of stripped down simplicity and elegance

__Kelly DeWitt

In the 18th century, an obscure group of dedicated Quakers began a new community. They called themselves the Shakers. Known best for their dedicated spirituality, another defining characteristic has slowly crept into public knowledge: the Shakers are profound designers. Their furnishings, dismiss elaborate additives and unnecessary decoration, and their non-materialistic lifestyles influence their use of minimal, lightweight material. A well-made product was itself an act of prayer, and form certainly followed function. Curious minds outside the Shaker circle have found the hidden gems of their design and latched onto their minimalist principles and elegant structure. Kelly DeWitt is one such mind that has drawn countless inspirations from the Shaker’s stripped down simplicity.

It was an unusually chilly day when we drove to meet Kelly at her home just outside of Austin, Texas. Fog hovered above the ground, while quiet country houses peaked through, barely revealing their hats. Cows munched on the freshly dewed grass, and my rural childhood living emerged like a new memory. Traces of Texas’ Hill Country loomed as we reached a farm-sized metal gate. It guarded a rustic but mannerly home overlooking the acres we’d only just traversed. Instantly there to greet us was a whitish labrador, bounding toward us to begin the tour – with factored in play time, to be sure.

Closely following this white blur of energy was Kelly, exclusive owner of KKDW and a profound welder, woodworker, and overall craftswoman. The blurs name, we learn, is Ellie.

We enter Kelly’s home guided by the delicate light shining through the back door. It reveals a home studio, as well as a myriad of her products. Plants sit, stand, and hang. It’s a cool day, and Kelly leaves the doors open to let the crisp, country air freshen everything inside. Like her dwelling, Kelly is reflective, welcoming. She’s tidy, and we’re not a bit surprised to hear she’s a goal setter and a list maker in her spare time. Rustic ornaments and Americana paintings adorn the walls while the Man in Black reverberates throughout the house.

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The room itself rouses a creative air. “It’s incredibly inspiring. In setting up the home, I mean. It’s an ever changing, organic thing that we build out and take away from, but it was just really important to have this be a retreat in a way. Because we are working all day long sweaty tired and needed a place to recharge.” The space evokes a perfect blend of Texas charm and Shaker simplicity. Her products populate the space with a certain authority. It feels settled; but she reminds us that it was only a year ago that she began building the structures before us. Kelly grants that many of her pieces begin as household needs. “I love plants – if you can’t tell,” she tells us, motioning around the room. “I was looking for a product like my plant stands and just could not find it. So I thought, well, I use steel, and I weld. So, I’m gonna do this. That’s how it started.”

“[A year ago] I was the marketing specialist. My background is academics. I was an English major. … I would sneak woodworking into my day job all the time. I was in charge of opening exhibition parties, so I would always build the photo booth. Stuff like that. Because you have to. I mean, I had to. Just to sort of do it and be building at any chance that I had.”As I listened to Kelly tell about her inspiration and background, I gathered around the phrase “building at any chance that I had,” as one would a fireplace during winter. It resonated deeply. She was still working at a local museum archive when she began; still paying her bills by the 9-5. She spoke of building her vocation as a craftswoman in every spare moment she could find. There was no obligation; no need for extra cash on the side. She was doing it because she had to; because to not build would be to give up on becoming what she knew she could be.

Purposeful, intentional living often gets overly complicated in our culture. What do you find yourself doing, working on, getting uncontrollably (and quite possibly annoyingly) excited about? Whatever that is, is probably the thing you should go ahead and do, for your sake and everyone else’s. Paula Scher, a well-respected designer, has something to say on the subject. “If you’re doing it because it’s a job and you want to go home and do something else, don’t do it, because nobody needs what you’re going to make.” It’s a frank, unapologetic quote: everyone is better off having a product that’s been lovingly created. Indifference in creating a product or service inevitably yields a poor gift for a fellow human being.

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Doing what you love doesn’t have to mean turning a financial blind eye, either. Kelly elaborates, “I would go into work, leave here around 6, get to work around 7, leave around 4 or 5 and go to the shop until around 10. I did that for about a year until I just decided to test the waters full-time.” It was more work, yes. But it was her play, too, her time to indulge in what liberated her spirit, challenged her intellect. Such unyielding commitment is one of the few skills that never goes unnoticed. Ultimately, it was Kelly’s coworkers and boss who encouraged her to finally pursue her passion full-time. “I remember one day in particular my superior called me into her office and gave me some tough love. She said, ‘You need to quit and go do this. We’re not going to be mad at you.’” Kelly further emphasizes how fortunate she feels to have people on her team, believing in her, like her partner and parents. “Travis, he is self-employed, too. So it’s a little easier to make what is a tough transition for a lot of people when your partner is already doing it and you see it working. And my parents are super supportive, too.”

After only a full year in business, Kelly has made a name for herself. The opportunities and business are only growing. She’s even collaborated on a few projects with fellow Austin creatives, including a minimal, welded chair with a local leatherworker, Natalie Davis of Canoe. She has a level of creative honesty with herself that is difficult to come by. If she has lost interest in a product or no longer finds it personally inspiring, she takes it out of production. She reasons, “I’ve already taken so many chances to get to do this full-time – which is already a really special thing – that you have to honor that and stay true to what got you there in the first place, which is doing things that you believe in and that you like. And you’ve got to keep staying inspired by what you’re doing.”

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Kelly hands us a cup of hot tea, and I continue to eye the subtle geometry of her welded plant stands. Each rod is narrow, elegant, and unobtrusive – providing plenty of space for the plant to shine. I ask Kelly about the inspiration behind her pieces. A smile spreads across her face and she alludes to her stack of Shaker books. “If ever I’m hitting a stumbling block, I’ll flip through one of my Shaker books. It kind of reigns me back in. And whenever I’m struggling, it’s because I have too many ideas floating around in my head.” Her woodwork, too, is brilliantly simple. The joinery evades the structure, further complementing the holistic nature of the piece. Simple, elaborate in craftsmanship, but not in decoration. She clarifies with a bit of humor: “The Shakers weren’t welding geometric shapes to put plants into them. That’s actually probably not part of the Shaker mentality to even own plants. But you let those thoughts and those philosophies influences your own sensibilities.”

The most significant cue she’s taken from the Shaker’s is her finely tuned joinery. It’s a traditional technique in woodworking that seamlessly attaches two pieces without the use of screws or nails. It’s special to Kelly for several reasons. It challenges her, and when it works, it exhibits how skillful she’s become. It requires an enormous attention to detail that so few have. “It really focuses on the little things and getting the details perfect. Because if you’re a 16th of an inch off, you’ve failed. And I’ve always been that way, had a keen attention to detail and I was really honing that all through undergrad and working the jobs that I had.” Because the cuts are so precise, the sanding so thorough, and the finish so thoughtfully applied, her larger pieces can take weeks, even months. “I feel like it would be easy for someone to balk at some of my prices or at some of my peers’ prices, but when you see the amount time, and energy and detail and talent that goes into piece, it makes more sense.”

As our time with Kelly comes to a close, I’m reminded of a quote by James Thurber from his short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” He says that, “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention,” and with Kelly’s creations, we find a case in point. Her designs are drenched in a humble elegance, worth the viewers’ patience and attention. No embellished additions or complicated connections. Like a dutiful worker, they loyally fulfill
their purpose; like a well composed painting, they beautifully evoke appreciation.

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