Made in the South

When the Best Seat in the House Is Outside

A lifelong love of gardens inspires handcrafted outdoor furniture at Virginia-based McKinnon and Harris

Photo: Kate Thompson

McKinnon and Harris’s Richmond showroom.

Photo: Kate Thompson

McKinnon and Harris founders Anne and Will Massie.

Anne and Will Massie were in high school when they went into business together for the first time. The siblings, born fifteen months apart, borrowed their dad’s orange International Harvester Scout and spent their summer days shuttling just-picked Silver Queen corn and sun-warm tomatoes they grew from seed on their grandmother’s farm to restaurants, country clubs, and nursing homes throughout Lynchburg, Virginia. It was gratifying work, though Anne still remembers with dismay the time a cook unceremoniously dumped her carefully packed tomatoes on a counter, where they skittered and splattered.

Perhaps that’s why the next time she had an idea for a garden-related business venture, Anne came up with something a bit sturdier. She and her brother had both relocated to Richmond—Anne for a master’s in art history at Virginia Commonwealth University, Will for the kind of job in investment banking that makes parents breathe a sigh of relief. But parents should know better: Headstrong, creative kids never stay in boring posts for long. The two had taken a trip to New Mexico together after college, and Anne kept thinking about the gorgeous metalwork that had so delighted them in Santa Fe and Taos. What if they built garden furniture with all the detail and artistry of wrought iron?

Photo: Kate Thompson

A chair detail.

The first problem: The Massies weren’t anywhere near the locus of American furniture manufacturing—High Point, North Carolina—nor did they have any contacts in the industry. On the other hand, after much experimentation, they had landed on the metal they wanted to use: lightweight, durable aluminum. In Richmond, the home of  Reynolds Wrap, aluminum was king. Even so, “this just seemed to reek of failure,” Anne says, so their parents made them go talk to “the only person they remotely knew who was involved in furniture.” This acquaintance listened attentively to their pitch and rendered a judgment that, as Anne recalls, went something like, “Y’all are too dumb to know any better what you’re up against, so because of that you’ll probably do really well.”

Nearly thirty years later, they’ve proved him right. Their company, McKinnon and Harris, produces inimitable outdoor furniture—custom made and handcrafted—that has become the go-to choice for designers looking for pieces that will endure for clients over a lifetime. The New York designer Bunny Williams calls their work “classic and beautiful,” and, she adds, “I love the fact that it is made in Virginia.”

Photo: Kate Thompson

The Fayette dining chair.

While they have showrooms in Los Angeles, New York, and London, Anne and Will have just moved their flagship Richmond showroom, offices, and workshop to a 65,000-square-foot building in the heart of the city. There, a team of more than sixty workers cut, bend, weld, sand, and finish raw aluminum. But unlike the more familiar (and much cheaper) aluminum furniture constructed from pieces of shiny cast metal, the items that McKinnon and Harris’s artisans shape have elegant curves in metal. The craftspeople bevel and join the elements of each chair, chaise, planter, and table using some techniques more akin to woodworking than metalsmithing—never will you see what Will calls that “bubble gum” solder hugging the seams. 

Photo: Kate Thompson

McKinnon and Harris’s Ashley Purtee (left) and Jena Gilmore at work.

Metalworkers with the skills and sense of artistry necessary for this work funnel to McKinnon and Harris from Virginia Commonwealth, Anne’s alma mater. “VCU has one of the best art and sculpture departments in the country,” she says. “We hire many of them while they’re working their way through school. They’re incredibly talented people who could make anything.”

Among them, for instance, is Jena Gilmore, a recent graduate whose metalwork studies encompassed “everything from small-scale jewelry to large-scale welding” of abstract metal sculptures. Though she still sculpts after hours, at McKinnon and Harris Gilmore focuses on craft more than design. “I appreciate being able to see how things go from raw material into a finished product, how you make a piece of furniture from start to finish, and how that informs the craft as you’re making it.”

Photo: Kate Thompson

Renderings of pieces.

While Will remains in Richmond to oversee day-to-day operations, Anne has moved back to Lynchburg and lives close to her dad, who still spends his days in the family garden. Old family photos show Anne and Will there, climbing trees and pausing along pathways flanked by lilacs, camellias, azaleas, rhododendrons, and peonies.

“To me, the garden is really more personal than rooms in a house,” Anne says, “and I didn’t realize that until after my mother died in 2015. I was the most undone when I walked out into my parents’ garden and the peonies were blooming that spring. All of the beautiful rooms in their house didn’t have the same effect as the garden.” Flowers bloom, plants grow, and some things, like furniture and memories, endure.