For this edition of Meet the Maker, we are thrilled to introduce master woodworker Kristin Mae Brown. After 15 years in the business world, Kristin left the rat race to turn her weekend hobby into her full-time gig. She founded Mae Brown Furniture in 2010, and she, her husband, her pups and her woodshop now call gorgeous Honolulu home. (Yes, we’re jealous, too!)
Kristin uses locally sourced, salvaged and reclaimed wood to create everything from dining room tables and floating beds to modern chairs and uniquely shaped gallery boards. Her furniture is absolutely breathtaking, and her freeform pieces are particularly stunning. Read on to hear about her design philosophy and how she is determined to bring the outside inside to remind us all of our connection to nature.
First things first, tell us a little bit about yourself and why you do what you do.
To date, I’ve actually spent the majority of my professional life in an office, not a woodshop! I grew up in Sea Girt, New Jersey, and went to college at New York University, with a very narrow focus on succeeding in the business world. I went into management consulting as an analyst for Deloitte Consulting after graduating from NYU with a dual degree in Economics and International Business. I was always very achievement oriented, graduating Summa Cum Laude from NYU and eventually going on to receive an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
Following business school, I went into brand management with a marketing position at Neutrogena Corp. in Los Angeles. But after three years, I decided to move to Honolulu. I had been visiting my sister annually since she had moved there six years earlier, and I was so attracted to the environment. I loved the beach, the prospect of swimming in the ocean year round and the amazing weather (which is even more amazing than the weather in Los Angeles).
A few weeks after my move, I started a product management position at First Hawaiian Bank in the summer of 2008. But three years later, I left the bank to become a professional woodworker. I had always loved furniture and had been building and refinishing furniture as a weekend hobbyist for 20 years. When I decided to leave my job, my husband Mike asked me, “If you could do anything you wanted to do for a profession, what would it be?” I responded, “I’d make furniture.” And that’s how it started.
That same night, I sent an email to a local furniture company, asking for an apprenticeship. The next day, after they’d replied with interest, I went by the shop and confirmed my new job. They later told me that they expected “Kris” to be male. They were surprised to see me walk into the shop and actually thought that I was a customer!
I spent a couple of days a week for the next eight months apprenticing with a highly skilled craftsman who was also a great teacher. The rest of my time was dedicated to honing my skills by practicing new techniques, learning new concepts and absorbing any and all information that I could.
Eventually, I started renting my own space at the shop, and in 2011, I founded Mae Brown Furniture. My company’s perspective (which is identical to my personal perspective) and goals are rooted in my childhood. Growing up, my mom was always filling the house with interesting objects from nature, bringing pieces from the outdoors into our home. She would collect shells and sea glass from the beach, driftwood from the dunes and rocks from hikes and camping trips, and she’d use them to decorate our house. She’d create wall hangings and botanical displays with things that she found. I think that’s where my creative sense stems from — blurring the lines between art and nature, between inside and outside.
In one sentence, tell us what Mae Brown Furniture is all about.
Mae Brown Furniture is about bringing a piece of nature into your space in order to invoke a sense of harmony and well being. The intention of each Mae Brown piece is to remind us of our connection to nature in today’s modern, fast-paced world. (Sorry, that was two sentences!)
How do you choose the types of furniture you make?
I try to start with the very best materials for each piece. Then I let the materials lead the way, based on their attributes and characteristics.
Some people decide that they’re going to build a tabletop out of 8″ x 4″ oak, and so they start the process by going to the lumberyard and buying 8″ x 4″ oak. But that’s not my process.
For me, whatever I’m building depends on what’s available at the time, specifically what’s dry and ready to work with. I air dry most of my slabs, which can take up to two years. Luckily, most of the slabs that I buy have been cut and stacked for eight to ten months prior to my purchase. It also depends what I have in stock. I routinely go to the reclaimed lumberyard to select and purchase materials.
Because I buy predominantly salvaged wood, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what types of materials I’ll get. Of course, if I have an order for a custom piece that I don’t have materials for, I will buy those materials. But thankfully, many of my customers are flexible with materials and dimensions. Often, a custom-order process begins with me putting together a presentation of slabs and/or lumber that I have ready to work with, and things flow from there.
What’s your favorite wood to work with and why?
That’s an easy one — monkeypod! It’s beautiful, the grain is amazing and the colors are rich and vary widely depending on where the tree grew. It’s fairly hard and dense so it’s durable, and it’s local and sustainable. Koa is king here in Hawaii, but monkeypod from Oahu can be just as striking. Plus, it’s what I worked with while apprenticing, so I feel very comfortable with it… like I really know it.
What does the making process look like for you?
It’s frantic! Definitely not calm in any sense, which is ironic because my company is so dedicated to nature and well being and harmony. I’m a perfectionist to a fault, and I get completely consumed during the making process.
My process is slightly different depending on the customer and whether I’m making a custom or catalog piece. But it usually starts with a simple drawing using pencil and paper, and then a couple of iterations later, the piece is created in AutoCAD by an assistant. After that, I make the piece from start to finish. I do all of the work myself. I’m a one-woman show with the exception of the metalwork, which is fabricated by a local blacksmith. But lately, I’ve actually been doing some of the final metal finishing work myself… Because I’m a bit particular!
Sometimes the process is smooth and seamless, and other times, particularly times when I’m challenging myself with a new design, the process is rough and stumbling and painful. But I’m always happy with the end result, which makes it all worth it.
What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever made?
A freeform monkeypod slab dining table. It’s breathtaking. I still like to look at pictures of it.
In one sentence, tell us why you love to make.
I love to make things that bring joy and happiness to people. (Corny, but true.)
Where do you get your inspiration?
Mother Nature. Vintage furniture. Architects and designers, both old and new. The community of artists here on Oahu.
What’s your favorite thing about making in Hawaii?
Being in a T-shirt every day. Getting access to the most amazing local hardwoods. Interacting with the people of Hawaii, who are very appreciative of nature and the beautiful environment that they live in.
What other creative hobbies do you have?
None — all I do is work! I’m in the midst of a busy time right now, so I’m pretty much working, sleeping and eating. But when things slow down, I love to cook, play volleyball at the beach and swim in the ocean.
My husband and I also live in an original 1948 home, which we bought as a major fixer-upper in 2010. So we are continually in the process of renovating and remodeling.
Tell us how technology has changed and supported what you do.
Technology has enabled people all over the world to see the work of someone who is working out of a woodshop in Hawaii. I also work with a very talented graphic artist who is able to convert my chicken-scratch drawings into digital renderings of furniture for my customers. Technology supports or enables everything that I do, which is pretty amazing.
What’s up next for you? Any big plans on the horizon?
Just continuing to work and grow my business. At this point, Mae Brown Furniture is past the brand new company phase (thank god!) and has begun to settle into a niche. I did just launch a new website and blog, which is constantly a work in progress.
I love what I do, and it’s so incredibly gratifying to know that I’ve found a passion in life that I can also call my job. I honestly didn’t think that was possible for me.
What’s one piece of advice you’d share with other makers?
Try to find a balance between making what you love to make and making what you think will make the most money. If they are the same thing, that’s great, but usually they’re not. This business is not for the faint hearted. If the idea of no security and high risk make you uncomfortable, keep making as a hobby, not a profession.
Know of other inspiring makers? Let us know in the comments below!