A Modern Touch

Words by Emily McMackin
Photos by
Mary Britton Senseney

Katy Skelton Acuff is always sketching furniture in her head. Whether strolling past the stately homes and moss-draped oaks that adorn the historic district of Savannah, Georgia, where she lives, or trekking through Budapest with her husband Drew, she’s constantly on the lookout for indelible shapes and structures to blend with the designs marinating in her mind. 

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“What inspires me is so abstract,” Katy says. “I can walk down the street, see a lamppost and think, ‘Oooh, the molding on that would make a cool side table.’ It’s just about keeping your eyes open all the time and taking in those details.” 

She’ll often spend a year or more ruminating on an idea for a piece of furniture, from what finishes to use to the best artisans to build it.

“When I finally sit down to draw it, I’ve been thinking about it for so long that I usually don’t have to go through any revisions,” Katy says. 

From there, she shares her concepts with one of several small factories she has hand-picked to produce furniture and home accessories for her American-made line. By the time she’s mulling over her next designs, her newest additions may be surfacing everywhere from summer homes in the Hamptons to the pages of magazines such as Elle Decor, House Beautiful and Food & Wine to sites such as Vogue and InStyle. 

Her furniture has even attracted celebrity attention. Katy’s maple and brass Wythe Media Cabinet made an appearance alongside actress Anne Hathaway in the 2015 Nancy Meyers film The Intern. Her lighting and tabletop accessories can frequently be spotted in rooms showcased on the Instagram feeds of celebrity designers such as HGTV star Emily Henderson. And one of Katy’s favorite creations, the Safari Bench, was recently featured in Architectural Digest as part of the mid-century renovation of a Pasadena home restored by “This Is Us” actress Mandy Moore and her husband, Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith.

“We feel very lucky to be included in projects like that,” Katy says. “We don’t always know whose home our furniture is going to because it’s often purchased by an interior designer and shipped to a warehouse. So it’s very exciting when we get to say, ‘Wow! We had no idea it was going there!’”

Since launching her eponymous furniture collection in 2013, the South Texas native has been making a name for herself in interior design circles for her versatile designs that bring a modern yet nostalgic vibe to living spaces. 

“I like things to be very purposeful,” says Katy, who graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in 2011 with a Master of Fine Arts degree in Furniture Design. “My collection is very functional and not overly decorative. I want my pieces to be classic, like that heirloom piece that can be passed down for generations and never really goes out of style because it’s not trendy.” 

Growing up, Katy developed a taste for traditional furniture, thanks to an array of styles purchased overseas by her uncle who served in the Navy. The pieces provided a glimpse into other cultures, from a table designed solely for serving tea to a bar with individually carved panels that could be opened and used.

“Seeing the function as well as the beauty in every piece was always so interesting to me,” Katy recalls.

A crafty kid who loved making handmade gifts, Katy aspired to become an architect and even began experimenting with computer-aided design (CAD) software in elementary school. But she was always drawn to furniture design, finding it more personal and approachable. 

After studying advertising at the University of Texas, she joined the sales team for a top furniture wholesaler in Austin but was soon submitting designs to the product development team and working her way up the design chain.

As a lead product designer, Katy spent the next few years traveling to factories in Mexico, Europe, and Asia and inspecting samples of her designs. While exciting, the experience opened her eyes to the harsh realities of overseas manufacturing. She found one visit to a new vendor in China particularly unsettling.

“When the doors to the factory opened, it was full of children,” she recalls. “They were so small they had to stand on cinder blocks to see the table. It was heartbreaking.”

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The incident fueled her passion for socially responsible manufacturing and her desire to build a business around those principles. Eager to establish her own aesthetic and deepen her knowledge of design engineering, Katy moved to Savannah to attend graduate school at SCAD. There she learned how to work with new materials, such as metal, and honed vital skills, from carving and casting her own hardware to printing patterns for textiles and promotional totes. 

For her graduate thesis, she teamed up with fair trade factories in India to produce her first line of wooden furnishings, planning every detail from costs to logistics. Though the project was successful, it convinced her to revamp her whole business model.

“I wanted to work with interior designers to customize every aspect of what I was selling, and that wasn’t going to be easy doing manufacturing overseas,” Katy says. “It made me realize that I wanted to make my pieces closer to home, not only so I could customize them, but also to make it easier to visit my factories and guarantee a higher level of craftsmanship.”  

Launching her company in Brooklyn, where she and her husband moved after graduation, was daunting, but Katy discovered a huge support network of other makers who shared their encouragement, contacts, and sources for materials.

“I had no idea what I was doing at first and made so many mistakes, but I learned from all of them,” she says. 

The business took off after Katy reached out to bloggers with a lower-cost piece—her acrylic and brass Captain’s Tray—to try for free. The tray caught on among social media influencers, especially after its inclusion on the popular blog Design*Sponge, and it became her bread and butter until more of her pieces started gaining traction. 

Katy has since expanded her collection from living room, bedroom, and home office staples into household decor and lighting. One of her best-selling pieces, the One Drink Table, was born out of a need for a tiny table to hold her drink in her cramped Brooklyn apartment. “We needed one, and it didn’t exist, so we rolled it out ourselves,” Katy says. Other items come with their own stories. The Shipshape Soap Holder, for example, is made from reclaimed wood that Katy’s dad, Craig, salvaged from the handrail of a retired Navy ship. 

“If I don’t love a piece or want it in my home, I don’t put it in my line, because it’s such a true reflection of me,” she says.

In keeping with her commitment to making beautiful, affordable products responsibly and sustainably, Katy entrusts her designs to a small group of family-owned manufacturing shops, from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, that have been operating for decades and employ artisans skilled in handcrafted production as well as in modern technologies.

Since moving her company back to Savannah in 2016 and bringing her husband aboard to run operations, Katy has been able to realize her long-time goal of producing more of her pieces in-house and hiring locals, including SCAD graduates, to work in her shop. 

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“If I have an idea for a light, I can just go into the shop and make it that same day. So that’s exciting to me,” she says. 

Inspiration is easy to find in Savannah with its plethora of charming homes and colorful characters, and the slower pace suits Katy, who prefers the “simpler, less stressful life I’ve been able to cultivate here.”

In addition to her own collection, which will soon debut a new dining table, bed, and lighting accessories, Katy also collaborates with top retailers such as West Elm, Pottery Barn, and Crate & Barrel to create licensed designs for their brands.

“It’s fun to work with larger retailers like those because most of them have unlimited resources and their factories can do anything,” she says. “It’s like being a kid in a candy store, because you can design whatever you want without any restrictions.”

Seeing her designs come to life feels like a dream for Katy, who still gets excited over every order that comes in, especially those she’s not expecting.

“Even though we get new orders every day, we still celebrate each one,” she says.

At home, she’s always changing up her own decor to test the functionality and livability of her latest designs.

“I’m constantly putting new lights up in the kitchen or bedroom to see how the finish is aging or how the clamps are holding up, because those are issues I’d rather figure out before my customers do,” she says. 

“My husband sometimes asks, ‘Are we ever just gonna be done?’ And I’ll say, ‘Never. Because we’re always going to be creating.’”