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Story #8Willie Willette WorksMinneapolis, MN

I don’t think in terms of happiness, I think in terms of satisfaction. Babies make me happy, but my work makes me satisfied.

Willie Willette worked 15 hours a day for 9 months straight. He was doing museum work for the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, supporting a big new exhibit. The show was a hit. The curator who put it together got a directorship. Willie got a pat on the back. “That’s how it’s set up, so I wasn’t upset about that,” he says. “But it was a lesson: if I’m going to work that hard, I’m going to do it for myself.”

In 1996, he did just that, opening his own custom design and build furniture company. It wasn’t easy. “In my second year, I asked a friend who had started a photography business five years prior when I would get to start sleeping again. He said ‘I’ll let you know.” Willie remembers being unable to sit down to eat lunch because he was so nervous about how things were going. But time and hard-won success have made it better.

Willie and his team thrive on providing their clients with something they never thought they could have. He calls it “the Jaw Drop,” but adds “the real secret is the fact that we work our asses off.” He believes in gathering wood and other materials locally and doing things the right way. Sometimes, that can price customers out. “A lot of people don’t see the value in spending twice as much on a piece of furniture. We say, ‘this will be around for 500 years if somebody takes care of it.”

In such a competitive business, his dedication to quality during challenging economic times can still bring him to the brink. “This past summer things slowed down. But, now that we’re through the toughest times, I’d actually like to grow a little bit. Add a couple more staff because we have the space. It’s just finding the right people.” Based on the stunning work the company creates, that seems like a tall order. But, Willie makes it feel achievable. “Everything we do is a series of simple steps. Once you master the dance, you can build anything.”

Photos by Shaul Schwarz & Christina Clusiau


  • Willie's team, inside and outside of the box.

  • Then his fabrication team has to make it work.

  • Scale models and free-hand drawings are a staple of Willie's design process.

  • "Everything we build," he says "is a series of simple steps. Once you master the dance, you can build anything."

  • Willie prioritizes local lumber and materials in his work.

  • 18 years into his business, Willie still loves the work. "The excitement is getting jobs -- and doing the design."

  • "Our most effective sales tour is a personal tour of our studio space, allowing people to imagine what is possible."

  • The light-filled studio space is a cacophony of sanders and saws, filled with the smell of sawdust and wood stain.

  • Leavings from a table-in-process.

  • "I have a positive and loyal staff, and you can’t pay money to get that. That’s both the luck of the draw with getting the right people and communicating well with them."

  • "When people say ‘I want you to make something that I haven’t seen before.’ I say, ‘Thank God. Hooray. Let’s do it.’"

  • But he does love to thrill his clients with the furniture he creates. "We call it the 'Jaw Drop.' Although our real secret is working our asses off."

  • Willie Willette doesn't mess around.

Q & A

We talked with Willie across his stand-up desk.

Any recommendations to young people in your field getting the guts to go out on their own?

Don’t do it. What I’d recommend is if you can learn your trade and your craft for a few years from someone else on a wage job, that’s going to be much better than trying to start up right out of college. You need to work probably 5, 6, 7 years with either a group of fabricators. Even though I came from construction, museum work was absolutely essential, especially to my design work. Do that if you can. The other thing of advice? Say the economy was like it was four years ago, even if you have to have a shitty job, have a shitty job making something. You’ll be learning from that, even if it doesn’t seem like it. Be producing something. There’s nothing wrong with wait service or anything like that, but if you can get a job making something, you’re still heading forward. You’re not at a dead end.

Would you ever work for somebody again?

I don’t think so, but, you know, that may not be my decision. I hope I can decide that for myself. I prefer not to at this point, but then again, a couple of my friends have great jobs. If somebody approached me and said we’ll give you a truck load of money to keep doing what you’re doing but for our company, I would certainly consider that. It would be hard for me to give up designing things, though. That would be difficult to give up.

Is that the favorite part now for you? Design?

Yeah, I think it always has been. When I started, I dreaded the sales stuff, but actually it’s turned into a strength just because I had to do it. I had to make sales. I enjoy that now more than I used to. I still like hands on, but I don’t get as much opportunity to do it.

What’s one of the biggest challenges?

Finding enough of the right clients. Almost every one of our clients have been fantastic. Some of our current clients are the best we’ve ever had. They really understand why it costs as much as it does to get things made exactly the way they want. Budget is always an issue. We’ll always have people who say “I love it, but I can’t afford it. Can we do it in a less expensive manner?” At that point we say “yes, we can use ash instead of walnut,” or something like that. But, we really love the clients who say, “I understand why it’s going to cost this much, because this is going to be spectacular.”

Business Details

3338 University Ave SE Suite 220 Minneapolis, MN 55414
PH: 612-333-3022 / Website
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