Published in Charleston City Paper
by Henry Snyder | Photos by Libby Williams
If you’ve stopped at the corner of Columbus and King recently, chances are good you noticed a new occupant in one of the formerly vacant storefronts. Walking by, you’ll see weathered tables and lamps displayed in the windows, but don’t think it’s just another downtown antique store. Workshop, as it’s called, is a lot more than that.
Visitors to Workshop are likely to be met at the door by either John Paul Huguley or Jon Palmer, the men behind the business. Huguley is well known for establishing and running the American College of Building Arts (ACBA for short, with which he’s no longer directly affiliated), and subsequently launching his for-profit company, Building Art, to help connect ACBA graduates with clients in need of their expertise.
Palmer, who just rounded out his first year as a Charleston resident, worked as an architect in New York prior to his relocation. The men’s business is to promote “good craft that is long-lasting and high quality.” And while that commitment has room for a carefully-curated selection of antiques, it encompasses contemporary pieces as well.
Supporting the work of local craftsmen, both ACBA graduates and others, is one of Huguley and Palmer’s primary goals. A central part of Workshop’s mission is to provide a venue for artisans to display their work, while also building brands and reputations that will serve them well into the future. “Once they get out of school, they need to get on their legs, business wise,” Palmer says. “So this creates a place where they can do that.”
Among the craftsmen already developing a relationship with Workshop are Ian Hardy, Drew Reynolds, and Robert Thomas. Hardy, who specializes in woodworking and furniture, and Reynolds, a blacksmith, are ACBA graduates. Thomas is a blacksmith as well.
Huguley explains that the artisans with whom he works have to fight against certain perceptions about those who work in the building trades. “[The craftspeople] needed a new vision, new marketing, a new plan,” he says. “There had to be a way to get them plugged in to the best architects and builders, and kind of negate that problem of, ‘Oh, craftsmen and contractors show up late and over-budget.'” While Building Art often provided this kind of support, Huguley considers Workshop the obvious next step in the growth process.
Huguley brought in Palmer to assist with scaling the project up. “I knew he’d had this idea,” Palmer says, “but didn’t have the manpower to do it.” Having already planned to move to Charleston, Palmer says, “I had all the free time in the world.”
One aspect of the business that Huguley feels sets it apart is providing access for the craftspeople to gain experience working directly with clients. “If someone comes to us to buy a door for a house, we would build the door and the frame, and we’d build it traditionally,” he says. He holds a strong belief that exposure to an artisan’s work will serve as the best publicity for the artist, stressing that the traditional techniques can be applied to a wide variety of projects. “We look at pieces and tradition,” Huguley says. “It’s not a style, it’s quality and how it’s put together.”
Eventually, Huguley and Palmer envision a future in which, as Palmer says, “A client can come down from New York with their designer, shop at Workshop, meet with the craftspeople, and all be able to sit down at a table in what will be a real, very creative, space.” The focus for now, Palmer says, is to “work with [the craftspeople] to create lines in their respective trades. Eventually, we’ll have lines in the carpentry trade, iron working trade, plaster trade, stone carving, all of them.”
The expectation is that in a year or two, Workshop will require a larger space — the duo want to house craftspeople’s workshops, a showroom for finished work, and collaborative spaces. “If someone comes in and needs a railing, we can say, ‘We have three craftsmen working in this area, which one’s right for this project?’ Palmer says. “We’re using their talent. We’re using their productivity, and they’re using our venue and our work to get this thing going.”
And while Workshop hasn’t yet fulfilled what Huguley and Palmer both consider its full promise, it’s already well on its way. “This is a place that is ever-evolving. It’s a place where people come to collaborate with their clients, collaborate with us. It’s not just a place where things cycle through — it’s a place where they’re created.”