If woodworkers Amanda McKeever and Khiem Nguyen were to open a restaurant, there’s no doubt that the decorating theme would be a fusion of midcentury modern and Asian. “We love to cook,” explains Amanda. “Khiem bakes—he’s good at measuring things and being specific, in the same way that he makes furniture, while I am more organic and like to experiment. At the moment, we’re into making Thai food.”
As fate would have it, many of the couple’s friends are chefs, so requests for breadboards, cutting boards and rolling pins, chopping boards and particularly sayas—wooden sheaths that protect knives—are a foundational component of their business, A&K Woodworking and Design. The couple successfully developed a leather strap to hold a knife in place and sayas are now one of their most popular items.
Amanda, from Massachusetts, and Khiem, from Connecticut, met in their freshman year at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. While Amanda studied jewelry and metal design and Khiem studied woodworking and photography, they discovered a shared love of the style and functionality of Japanese design. “In Japan,” Amanda says, “there are boxes for everything, not just tea.” She also developed a passion for “everything midcentury modern.”
The business came later. In March of 2012, having graduated the previous year, the couple took a road trip to escape the cold weather in Boston and ended up in Austin. “We tried queso,” Amanda says, “and that was it.” Back in Boston, they saved enough money to make the move south. Packing all their possessions into a car, they took a detour to New Hope, Pennsylvania, to the studio of George Nakashima. Profoundly influenced by the artist’s respect for wood, the couple arrived in Austin with heads full of ideas. Khiem began work in a cabinet shop and Amanda in a dress shop, and their future business model slowly evolved from practical needs. They needed furniture and—using scraps of wood given to Khiem at work—started to design and construct their own pieces combining spare and graceful Japanese influences with the modernity of the midcentury.
The couple found the collaborative nature of Austin artists and craftspeople to be supportive. Excited by the incubator space concept and new ways to incorporate technology into different applications, they launched a business. “There are people here who love to support the creative community and they are paying attention to the work of craftspeople,” says Khiem. “The maker movement is so strong here.”
Instagram has been the couple’s primary business driver, but even with a following of nearly 6,000 from all over the country, Amanda and Khiem find that more than 50 percent of their work is custom. Many requests are for products made in custom sizes, from cutting boards to nightstands, armoires or dining tables. “When talking to customers, we often ask, ‘What do you need this to do for you?’” notes Amanda. “We’re focused on the function of the piece.”
A&K Woodworking and Design also offers a line of small hanging and table lanterns inspired by Japanese design. “A lantern is an object that does something,” says Amanda. “It’s important that items have a practical function.” Larger versions of the lantern designs have been made into screens that are used as decorative panels in restaurants and residences. And there’s no mistaking the influences on their work. Simple straight lines combine with slender tapered and flared legs on furniture items that sometimes have brass or aluminum accents and the occasional vintage pull, sourced by Amanda. Practicality is fused with a refined sense of style. The pieces are never stained. “We use gallons of mineral oil,” says Amanda.
Woodworking is a time-consuming business. The couple selects wood from local Austin lumberyards and prefers American hardwoods such as walnut, cherry and maple. Khiem is particularly attracted to the rich color and freshness of walnut. “We feel connected to the wood from the beginning,” he says. “We work with the wood from this stage until it becomes something else.”
To alter the sometimes challenging dynamic of living and working together, Amanda and Khiem take road trips to refresh, check in with each other, explore and get inspired. They take lots of photos on the way, in places such as Nashville, Boston, Philadelphia, Montreal and Portland, Maine. After eight years together, the couple recently became engaged, but no date has been set for a wedding. “We’ll probably just have a big party,” says Amanda, holding out her hand to show her ring. “But meanwhile, my mother keeps calling.”
By Georgina O’Hara Callan • Photography by Dustin Meyer