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McMillen brothers combine artistic talents for Columbia business

Friday, March 14, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:02 p.m. CDT, Friday, March 14, 2014
Adam and Justin McMillen have perfected the art of working together as brothers. At their business, McMillen Industries, they have perfected the art of a "maker space," where they share tools and ideas.

COLUMBIA — As a child, Adam McMillen was always tinkering with the busted toys he inherited from his older brother.

"Everything I got (as a child) was broken, so I had to fix it," he said.

As he outgrew tinkering with toys, McMillen, 28, moved on to building furniture, painting murals and crafting industrial-style signs.

A year ago, he and his brother, Justin McMillen, 31, launched McMillen Industries to produce what they call "business art" — handmade signs, furniture and functional interior decor in Columbia. McMillen Industries also works with clients to restore vintage wares such as lamps, tables and chairs.

Clients have included The Blue Note, Mojo's, Broadway Brewery, Trey Bistro and the soon-to-open Logboat Brewing Company.

"In a world where everything is mass produced and manufactured, there is a culture out there of making stuff," Adam McMillen said. "There was a generation gap where nobody made things. Now there's a community of makers."

Maker spaces

Last April, the McMillens rented a studio on I-70 Drive Northwest, the outer road west of the Stadium Boulevard exit. Their nearest neighbor is Columbia Showcase Kitchens and Baths, where the McMillens often salvage cabinet wood from a dumpster. 

The studio is the McMillen brothers' version of a "maker space," something they affectionately call "shop class for adults."

A maker space fosters the shared use of tools and information for different kinds of projects. Justin McMillen owns the tools he needs for glass blowing; Adam McMillen has the ones he needs for working with metal and wood. They often borrow each other's tools and supplies for their own jobs.

"We wanted enough room to make stuff because that is what we do," Justin McMillen said.

The perimeter of their 600-square-foot workroom has shelves and long counters to hold tools and materials, while a large wooden table dominates the center for projects in progress. This space is where the McMillens have put together a number of commissions for local restaurants, bars and nightclubs.

Their style, a combination of wood, concrete, metal and glass, has an appeal to businesses that want an edgy aesthetic. They made a minimalist metal lamp of sandblasted steel, for example, for an exit door at Trey Bistro, a restaurant on Ninth Street that offers dishes from local farms as well as vegan options. 

For Broadway Brewery, the McMillens made a chalkboard with a metal border for the entrance. Logboat Brewing Company, set to open this spring near Columbia College, will have McMillen-made signs of wood and metal hand-cut with a plasma cutter. Silhouettes of three figures are lined up in a canoe, and the sign is backed with a panel of salvaged wood strips.

Among Adam McMillen's first projects was the circular sign outside Mojo's and the club logo on the patio wall. General Manager John Bowles had admired the art-deco-style painting McMillen had done for the inside of The Blue Note.

"I don't know anything about (making things), which is why it was nice to work with him," Bowles said. "You give him an idea and he does it."

"Industrial" is the first word that comes to Justin McMillen's mind when describing his brother's work. It is linked to the steampunk movement, a science-fiction-based style known for its images of machinery.

Adam McMillen doesn't want to be typecast, though. He said his work develops and differs somewhat with each new project. 

"I have an idea, and if I don't want to spend the rest of my life thinking about it, I make it," he said.

Growing up

The brothers grew up in Scottsbluff, Neb., and moved to Columbia about 10 years ago. Their grandmother lives in Ashland and suggested that Justin McMillen move to Columbia in 2002, after high school because he enjoyed summer stays with her. Adam McMillen followed suit in 2006.

They had a pottery studio in Scottsbluff, but after moving to Columbia, they abandoned pottery and began following independent interests.

Justin McMillen started glass blowing five years ago after watching a friend. He took a class at Village Glass Works and "just kept going with it." 

"It's like you are communicating with the glass," he said. "There is really nothing I can compare it to."

He still works as a carpenter for Magner Bros Solar Construction & Design in Hartsburg, but he spends much of his free time in the studio. His glass cups and vases are for sale at Village Glass Works, and his glass tobacco pipes can be found at Grass Roots Smoke Shop, Aardvarx, DreamCatcher Studio and Retro Active Smoke Shop.

Adam McMillen channeled his artisan skills into painting, woodcarving and metalwork.

"I started welding because I didn't know anybody that did and I needed some things welded," he said. "I'm just kind of making it up as I go."

The future of McMillen Industries may include more collaboration between the brothers.

"We've tried to diversify our skills over the years so we could both utilize each other," Adam McMillen said.

He wants to expand his work on furniture after getting a taste of building tables for Logboat Brewing. He also would like more restoration work, since helping restore a lamp that had been in front of Mojo's since the 1940s when the place was called Susan's Oyster Bar.

"Nothing gets my respect like an item or building that is a century old," Adam McMillen said.

The possibility of creating a sign for the Root Cellar could add copper as a design element to his materials, and he may team up with 9th St. Public House to build bike racks.

He indicated that his passion for making things will always fuel his business and life as a craftsman.

"I like being able to take someone's idea and make it into reality for them," he said.

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.


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