A Craftsman’s Journey


By Joshua Bodwell

Photography Darren Setlow


Revealing the essence of wood

Rising from a meadow at the edge of Kennebunkport, the Huston & Company workshop and showroom has both a modern feel and a rambling, New England quality—like the surrounding farms, the building looks as though it has been gradually expanded over the years and shaped by its industry. This venue—with its pleasing tension between old and new—is a fitting venue for Bill Huston’s custom woodworking. Huston’s designs combine the sleek, confident lines of contemporary Scandinavian design with traditional aesthetics of the Shaker legacy and the American Arts and Crafts movement. Celebrating twenty years in business, Huston continues to push the edges of his timeless craft.



Huston was raised in a liberal bastion of the conservative Midwest: Yellow Springs, Ohio, home of Antioch University. “There was such an immense community spirit,” says the 57-year-old, “this great sense of connectedness.” His family has owned and operated an iron foundry in nearby Xenia since 1920, but after he stumbled upon woodworking during college it quickly became evident that Huston was not destined for the hiss and heat of molten iron.


“We were bored with college,” he admits, “so a couple friends and I signed up for this adult-ed class in woodworking at a nearby high school.” Huston still has the first piece he ever built, a chair with a swinging desktop attached to one arm. “Oh, it was crude,” he remembers, laughing. “You can see the burn marks from the table saw!”


By his junior year, Huston arranged to study at a small craft school in the farming country north of Oslo, Norway. A master woodworker took Huston under his wing and, because of the language barrier, taught him through an invented sign language. It was a perfect fit for the physicality of working with hand tools. “I was just enthralled,” he says. “That time period changed my life.” Huston lost interest in college and, after a bout of wanderlust during what would have been his senior year, voyaged back to Norway for another year of intensive training.huston_0004903_w.jpg


When Huston returned stateside, he was ready to produce. After settling in Massachusetts, he saw an ad for the recently opened Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers. He drove to Maine, met Moser, and was hired. It was 1976, and Moser had only a three-man crew—Huston made it four. By the time he left in 1988, Huston had risen to general manager, and the crew had grown to more than a hundred.


“I was really missing the personal relationship with customers,” he says of his departure. “Making furniture for a catalog has never been my passion. What I love is sitting with someone who tells me, ‘This is my family, this is how I entertain…this is my life and this is what I need.’” Huston relishes the challenge. “When you are designing with an individual, you have a chance to catch a bit of their essence in a piece,” he says with a flash in his eyes.


After seven years building furniture in Poland Springs, Huston constructed his Kennebunkport shop and showroom in 1995. Around this same time, Huston became interested in custom institutional, library, and corporate work. “The nature of the projects is different,” he says, “but the work is still specific to designing within the architectural details of the environment.” Over the past decade and a half, Huston has designed and built pieces for universities such as Harvard and Princeton, as well as libraries all over New England, including the Boston Public Library. Closer to home, Huston’s work sits in schools such as Waynflete, Berwick Academy, and College of the Atlantic.


Since striking out on his own, Huston says he has intentionally embraced the business side of his art. “None of us get into woodworking because we want to run a business—we want to create,” he says. “But you have to embrace the business and marketing because you can make an unbelievably beautiful piece of furniture, but if you can’t sell it, you won’t be around next year to make another piece.” This pragmatic approach has made Huston anything but static. Even after three decades plying his trade, his designs continue to evolve—his Duo line, for instance, combines sleek cherry in an Arts and Crafts motif with panels of hammered copper.

“This twenty-year anniversary of Huston & Company does feel significant,” he admits. Added to the momentous occasion, Huston’s son Saer joined him in the shop three years ago. “It has made me very reflective to have him here.” When asked if Huston & Company will last the eighty years and four generations that his family’s Xenia Foundry & Machine Company has, Huston smiles. “That would be something…,” he says, shaking his head and trailing off. His cheeks seem to grow flush at the very thought, as though it is a dream too perfect to utter for fear it may not come true. “That would be a statement that what we’ve done here has had lasting meaning…an impact…,” he trails off again.


“Well, I’ve never seen myself as much of risk taker, which is a trait most entrepreneurs seem to have,” Huston says with a shrug. “I have always preferred the hard work route over the risk route.”

But then, this assertion comes from a 57-year-old who once traveled thousands of miles and crossed oceans in pursuit of the secrets that would unlock wood.huston_0004870_w.jpg

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