Migrating across the country in 2012, art school grads Amanda McKeever and Khiem Nguyen stuffed all of their belongings into a Toyota Corolla, ready to carve out their shared future. They packed what fit and figured they’d pick up other necessities upon settling in Austin.
The promise of creative living in a warmer climate drew the young couple from Boston after they’d earned MFA’s at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Both had studied photography; McKeever explored metal work, and Nguyen pursued classical training in woodworking. They meandered on the long drive south, stopping in the arts-centric borough of New Hope, Pa., where the former studio of George Nakashima, a luminary in the American Studio Furniture movement, is open to visitors.
With the innovative woodworker’s spare style fresh in their minds and a nearly empty home to outfit, their first collaborative art project as Texans was apparent: designing and building their own furniture. They envisioned a Mid Century Modern look combined with elements of traditional Japanese design, each piece defined by simplicity and clean lines.
“The first thing we made was a coffee table, then end tables and side cabinets,” Nguyen said. “We made them exactly how we wanted.”
The newly transplanted couple said they couldn’t believe what happened next: People paid attention.
“We started Instagramming what we were making and interior designers were reaching out to us,” McKeever said. With requests for custom orders coming in, “suddenly we had to turn everything into a real brand quicker than we expected we would. It’s what we had always wanted.”
Thanks to social media and word of mouth among designers, A&K Woodworking and Design was born almost in a flash. Specializing in credenzas, cabinets and other functional case pieces, the talented pair collaborate on designs — often with input from customers as well. Then Nguyen crafts each piece by hand at Edwood Studio Co-Op in East Austin, where woodworkers rent and share tools and equipment as well as a large workspace.
The timeline from idea to real-deal business operations was brief, and McKeever makes it sounds like a snap, but every step of the way — building a website, building a brand, building relationships with interior designers and, of course, building large pieces of wooden furniture — required hard work. And it’s paid off. The orders have become steady enough that woodworking has been Nguyen’s full-time work for the past year, and these days he builds two or three larger pieces each month. McKeever handles laser cutting for smaller items such as trinket boxes and candle-lit lanterns, and also shoots photos and promotes their designs. She explains that their sudden success is a matter of commitment to a style that matches a look that’s embraced in Austin.
“We’re from the Northeast originally, and up there you see a lot of older Victorian houses,” she said. “And the Mid Century Modern look works really well with houses here. Having our pieces be able to fit into that aesthetic was great. What we love about the fusion of Mid Century Modern with Japanese is it’s this warm, recognizable piece without being too stark. The Japanese element keeps it fresh and keeps it from being outdated. Khiem’s really into handcarved joinery, like dovetailing, and pieces that are put together using chisels will last forever.”
A&K cabinets, mini bars and dining tables are in demand, and they’re particularly proud of their latest piece, which looks like a Mid Century record cabinet but incorporates a compartment for a modern speaker system. They keep busy crafting everything from beautifully grained cutting boards, sushi plates and coasters to heavy mantelpieces and custom countertop installations. Raw materials are sourced from local lumber yards, most commonly black walnut, maple and cherry. All A&K pieces are crafted with natural finishes, a nod to Nakashima’s work.
“That stop really inspired us because he respects the wood and showcases it,” McKeever said of the studio tour in Pennsylvania. “The style is about keeping things simple and clean and showing what’s beautiful about the wood.”
A&K designs are sold at The Tinderbox in Houston and online at Uncommon Goods and Etsy as well as through their website.
A&K WOODWORKING AND DESIGN 860.965.5886 | Akwoodanddesign.com