- Real Estate
- Food & Drink
Sept. 9, 2019
On the fifth floor of an 18th century estate in Bath, England, Keith Morgan took in the magnitude of the moment.
“I realized I was sleeping in the same bedroom that Marie Antoinette’s ladies in waiting slept in when they would be there,” he said.
“It’s humbling and makes you feel like you have no clue what you’re doing.”
His design skills and craftsmanship suggest otherwise. They are what landed the artisan business owner in the residence, which is part of The Royal Crescent.
Considered one of the greatest examples of Georgian architecture in the United Kingdom, the Royal Crescent was built between 1767 and 1774 and for centuries has served as a home or retreat for members of the British aristocracy and their guests, who included Marie Antoinette. It once was home to Queen Mary of Teck, wife of King George V.
One of the current home owners selected Morgan several years ago to modernize a kitchen and master bathroom as well as create furniture pieces.
His company, Bespoke, was aptly named for such handcrafted work.
“(The word) ‘custom’ is thrown around all the time,” Morgan said. “This is couture design, hand fabrication. High design combined with a high level of craftsmanship.”
Reaching that fifth-floor bedroom in Bath, though, took nothing less than a global journey for the 43-year-old, who is now based in – of all places – Larchwood, Iowa.
It’s a little known story locally, but one that is starting to come out as Bespoke begins looking for new business opportunities closer to home in the Sioux Falls area.
“I got incredibly lucky,” Morgan said. “I got very lucky in the right place at the right time.”
Morgan was born in Sicily. His mother is from south of London, and his father is American but worked for the government in Italy.
For the first nine years of his life, he remembers visiting Roman mosaics.
The family then moved to the United Kingdom, outside Cambridge, where he aspired to be a professional mountain biker before gravitating to maritime business law.
Biking accidents caused him to realize that career could be “a very unpleasant life existence,” while the law school experience was “lackluster.” Morgan found more inspiration redoing part of his college apartment.
“I literally redid and replaced all the floors in my rental flat with wood floors because the flooring was disgusting,” he said. “So I spent more time creating things and making things and building things than going to school.”
He left school and moved to Bavaria “which is where my heart is,” and at Christmas 1999, bought a one-way plane ticket to California.
He mailed his mother a letter at the airport, arrived with $4,000 in his pocket, knew no one, rented a car and headed north.
“I wandered around California for about a month trying to decide what to do,” he said. “It retrospect, it could have gone horribly wrong.”
In retrospect, it went incredibly right.
While working 16 hours a day at multiple jobs, Morgan spotted a classified ad for a janitorial position at a design firm called Barefoot Elegance. The owner was a well-known film producer, and his wife was a Hollywood designer.
“So I thought, ‘I will never get a legitimate job. So I will go in as a nothing, and once I’m in, I will show them what I can do,’ ” he said.
In between changing light bulbs and cleaning the sinks, he bought some basic tools and crafted a drawer box.
“And one afternoon, I took it in and said, ‘I feel like I could be a little underutilized swabbing the deck. Here is a drawer box,’ ” he said. “And that’s what launched my career.”
The next week, he was in a film director’s three-story penthouse being asked to work on projects for it.
“It was trial by fire, and for whatever reason, I got away with it, and they were impressed,” Morgan said.
“But I firmly believe you cannot teach composition and proportion. You either have a natural gift for it or you don’t.”
The years that followed brought work from well-known Hollywood names but ultimately proved unfulfilling, he said.
Sick of traffic in California and seeking work that felt more meaningful, he headed east with a waitress he met at a restaurant who happened to be from Minnesota. They stopped there; and while the relationship ended, Morgan stayed.
He met his future wife, Katherine, in the Twin Cities and got married in 2009. Her family’s business, Security Savings Bank, is based in Larchwood, and they moved there in 2012.
“Our business is a hybrid – high-end design and fabrication together,” Morgan said. “We have learned to do every bit at the highest end.”
When Bespoke takes on a project, it takes on the entire project.
“Every single item in the room is designed, created from scratch and made by us,” Morgan said. “We don’t buy really anything at all. All these components are sympathetic to each other. They have great cohesion.”
The business handles every element of the project in-house.
“Our client base understands the true value of what that means. When they talk to me, they are talking to the plumber, the mason, the designer, the fabricator,” Morgan said.
“We inspire a high degree of confidence that we have gentrified this process of construction to the point I feel it is the Savile Row of construction. We’re not a good fit for a lot of people, but for the right client, massive trust and respect develops.”
There are two non-negotiables in working with Bespoke: timelines and cost.
“Time and money are critical tools in our workshop,” Morgan said. “If you take those components away, you are setting it up for disaster. It’s not going to happen. Money is a tool like a chisel. So many artisans, unfortunately, live a life of feast or famine. And I think that’s inappropriate for the level of heart that gets put into the work.”
And these projects do take time.
Morgan spent nine years working on a brownstone in Minneapolis.
In this space, known as “The Knowledge Room,” he took on a circular ceiling, curved paneling and molding. The finishes are crafted in Imbuya burl veneer, figured walnut veneer and solid walnut.
The doors and drawer faces of the curved desk feature a herringbone design on the center panels.
“As a child, I’m looking at Roman mosaics, design that has been around thousands of years,” Morgan said.
“I do herringbone, and that’s a design that’s Roman in origin. It’s how they paved their roads. The legacy of this is still there, and it’s great design. It will never be unfashionable. That’s the way we try and do our products.”
This contemporary bathroom features Ziricote paneling with a stringing inlay of teak and a custom walnut ceiling.
Morgan compares the 52-inch soaking tub to “being inside a Faberge egg.”
He spent a year on the Royal Crescent home in 2011, where it took a month to craft a drawer in the kitchen designed to hold bread.
“It’s not Architectural Digest photo shoots. You can’t get farther from the reality of that,” he said.
“You’re looking up at this, and the idea of the history you’re encompassing your product in, and the test of time it has stood is very humbling. You are making an impact on something that has been around for hundreds of years, and you better do a good job.”
That kind of legacy work demands appropriate materials. Morgan works with a broker in New York to source his wood globally.
“It’s his job to understand where those logs are, what the timing is and to get us materials,” he said. “This is not deforesting the Amazon. This is one log here or there that comes for sale due to storm damage or sheer dumb luck.”
From an ecological perspective, he considers the wood’s reuse the highest form of sustainability.
“The materials we use are rare, and we use that in a way that is legacy work,” he said. “It will never be thrown away. It will be around forever, which to me is the most sustainable and appropriate and respectful.”
Morgan’s days mostly are spent in his Larchwood workshop, where he employs five artisans. It’s not uncommon for him to be in the shop from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
“That’s what it takes to do this,” he said, adding the goal is not to see how big Bespoke can become.
“If you get bigger, as I was in Minneapolis, you lose the nimbleness year in and year out. The product becomes maintaining the level of quality, but not enhancing it. And the creative interest goes downhill completely.”
He also has turned down an offer from HGTV for a television show about his work.
“That’s not how great design is done,” he said. “It’s thoughtfulness and consideration. These rooms are not things I came up with on a whim. They are compositions in my head for years that I’ve been wanting to do.”
He is hoping to build some business locally, however. Morgan recently hired Erica Locke, who spent several years as an interior designer at Koch Hazard Architects, as a project developer and interior designer.
They met when he stopped by to show the firm his portfolio. What typically would have been a 15- or 30-minute appointment turned into a 90-minute meeting.
“He has lived all over the world. He’s bringing all that cultural experience and design influence here. He’s bringing things we’ve never seen,” Locke said. “I had never seen this level in all my training. I had done high-end residential. But this isn’t comparable.”
They eventually determined it made sense to work together, as Morgan sought to become more integrated in the Sioux Falls area.
“He was thinking about doing work in Bespoke’s own backyard because he’s never done that before,” Locke said. “So we became a team.”
Locke, a northwest Iowa native, worked in design in Nashville before moving back to the area in 2012.
She will serve as the face of Bespoke and work on business development as well as design.
What sets Bespoke apart is how it draws on different cultures and experiences and implements them into its designs, Locke said.
“It’s always evolving, and when the perfect project comes along and you’re able to make the magic happen, you’re left speechless in the end,” she said.
“The room just envelops you. You look at it and think, ‘This was made just for me. No one else on this planet has this.’ It’s on a level of its own and outstanding.”
Bespoke has done some residential work in Sioux Falls and is starting to get into executive office work.
“It’s off-stage, private, high-end spaces that are not going to be widely publicly used,” Locke said.
They also will be showing some of their work for the first time publicly in the Sioux Falls area later this week at the American Institute of Architects South Dakota conference.
“The structure itself, the backdrop of the display is very compelling architecturally, so the display itself is an example of what we do,” Morgan said.
If there’s enough area business, Bespoke might open a downtown studio, he said.
“There has to be validity to be downtown. It’s a space to work out of, but why do it if you don’t have customers,” he said. “We don’t really need the legitimacy of a showroom. Where we’re at now, our portfolio within the woodworking industry is very well known.”
He occasionally will do a small project such as a ceiling or walls, or pieces of furniture. Some are for sale on his website, where pieces range from about $7,000 to $19,000.
Much of Morgan’s business will still take him elsewhere. One current project, an estate in Texas, is expected to last more than two years.
He views the work, perhaps, like the great craftsmen of his native Europe who preceded him by centuries — as something meant to last for all time.
He might be sitting in his northwest Iowa workshop, but his mind is back in that 18th century British bedroom.
“It’s moments like that that you can’t buy. They are priceless,” he said.
“On nights in the shop late at night, when it can be frustrating and hard, you try and reach out and grab onto things like that you know will probably happen again if you stay the course. And you don’t finish up for the day, even if you want to.”
Get ready for an amazing story featuring some incredible work. Introducing Bespoke: An area business with worldwide reach.