Craftsmanship in Design: A Tour with Brian Keenan

Brian Keenan, Master Craftsman.

Brian Keenan, Master Craftsman.

By Melissa Zoeller
Special to The Voice-Tribune

As I enter Bittners, a large wall hanging showcasing old world craftsmanship catches my eye. Brian Keenan, one of the master craftsmen at Bittners, warmly greets me.

We begin to walk towards the custom shop where Brian brings me into his world of creating beauty from wood.  He starts by pointing out exquisite full-scale, handmade architectural drawings of chairs and tables, which hang on the walls in Club 1854.  Such hand drawings provide Bittners clients with a full-scale view of their custom furniture piece before it comes to life.

He also notes the famous Bittners’ 351 chair, which their craftsmen have been creating since the 1950s. Brian explains that chairs are the most artistically challenging because of how personal they are and the handwork that goes into each piece. Each chair can be made to fit an individual’s taste down to the most intrinsic of details, marrying comfort and style into one work of art.

The original Bittners sign hangs above the doors to the workshop. I hear the sound of woodcarving, feel the crunch of shavings under my feet and smell the strong aroma of the wood as we walk into the shop. A craftsman is working on a beautiful flat-cut mahogany table, revealing the flame pattern in the design and detailing fleur-de-lis carvings in the inlay.

Here begins our journey into the craftsmen’s world.

What does the work of a master craftsman entail?
A master craftsman handles every aspect of custom furniture making, taking it from an idea to completion, as well as restoration of already completed pieces. We create everything from headboards, desks, tables and chairs to wall paneling, armoires and art stands. To be labeled a master craftsman, you must have many years of woodworking experience as well as an understanding of proper design of a piece in full scale, color and finish.

What do you love about working with wood and what is your woodworking philosophy?
I strive to balance quality, functionality and aesthetics to create timeless pieces. In this spirit, I love sculpting and bringing out the beauty of the wood.

What are some key points people aren’t aware of about the fine art of custom woodworking and the steps it takes to create?
We handle every aspect of furniture making, beginning with an idea from scratch and taking it all the way to completion. We’ll make a full-scale drawing, or even a true mock-up, work with our client to perfect the design and gain approval, and then begin production. We encourage our clients to come in and work with us to choose the woods, patterns and process they want to use, as well as the sheen, color and feel of the piece.

What are some current cabinetmaking trends you see?
People are more conscious about what the earth can handle, so there is definitely a value in creating out of reclaimed wood. Proper harvesting and reclaiming is very important in this day and age, and everyone is striving to be more environmentally friendly. There is also a trend in restoration work and individuals truly appreciating the history that is in the antiques they already own, and maintaining those pieces as much as possible.

What inspires you when creating?
Showing the best of the wood by laying it out and letting it be what it is meant to be. I like to find the beauty in each type of wood, whether it be an exotic tulipwood or Brazilian rosewood, or a classic walnut or chestnut, many woods have great reflective quality and can make striking patterns.

What are some of the most memorable pieces you have worked on?
I reproduced a prayer altar made from Asian teak because the original piece was damaged. It was fascinating to work on the design and functionality of the altar, especially because of what it meant to the owners. I also created a unique dining table that consisted of 64 sheets segmented into a pie pattern with a custom inlay of carved ivy around the outside of the table.

Your career highlights?
I worked with the Design on the Edge program at the University of Kentucky in the mid-nineties, where students from around the country were judged on their jury designs. Our team was able to travel to see the designs and then lucky enough to create the top three winning pieces, including an amazing basket cabinet, bentwood chair and commercial bedding piece.

Who inspires you?
My father, Carl Keenan, was always very hands on and mechanically inclined. My mother, Patricia Keenan, taught me to never stop asking questions and to always stay in touch with my artistic side. My uncle, the late Robert Owings of Owings Patterns, was a machinist and patternmaker whose company services the foundry and thermoforming industry. It was always amazing to see him make patterns from scratch. And of course my mentor, Hubert Schuwey, who saw potential in me and allowed me to train under him for more than 10 years at Bittners.

What are the benefits of working at Bittners?
We all have creativity in us, and Bittners fosters an environment that allows each individual, from craftsmen to designers to clients, to express that through collaboration, ultimately creating amazing, custom looks and designs.  Bittners is the only design firm that continues to support a custom shop of master craftsman in our area.

What you are grateful for?
To get up every day to a family that I love, friends who I draw inspiration from and a great job.  I am appreciative of the amazing role models that have shaped my life into what it is today.

I am so grateful that I get to work at a design firm that encourages an environment of creativity and individuality. I want to thank Laura Frazier and Douglas Riddle for their dedication and endorsement of our unique craft.

What is one thing that people are surprised to know about you?
I love singing, especially classic rock and blues.

  • Linda Constant

    Thank you for the great story. Brian, your family is proud of you and we love you dearly.