In a 4,000-square-foot studio, Troy Evans and Coila of Blockhorse Designs Inc. create distinctive wood and metal furniture, fixtures and cabinetry and one-of-a-kind sculptured furniture pieces. They are a pair of versatile artists succeeding with work in fine homes as well as small businesses.
From a home base in Roundup, Blockhorse Designs is a growing business that is finding opportunities in Billings, at least partly thanks to the Magic City's growing economy and growing interest in aesthetic qualities.
"Billings people have really adopted the principle that if you are going to change the economics you have to change the aesthetics as well," Evans said. Progressive work by the Downtown Billings Association has changed the atmosphere and the possibilities downtown.
Before starting business in Roundup 13 years ago, Evans worked in Charleston, S.C., building staircases in historic buildings. He placed his studio in Roundup because his family has a ranch there. "I saw it as a great place to kind of hide away in my studio and get my work done," he said.
Over the years, he has developed a style that is beginning to be recognized.
"One thing people notice in my work is there is always a tension or suspension," he said - for example, a table top that looks like it is floating. "The other thing they always recognize is a very unique way of doing joinery."
His pieces are functional furniture and at the same time individual works of art. His sculpture tables sell for $10,000 to $40,000, and he has sold a single piece of furniture for $80,000.
He has been so busy with commission work, including for buyers in other states, that he hasn't been showing his sculpture furniture in galleries. But that is changing now as Blockhorse Designs takes the big step of expanding into display space of its own.
Evans and Coila have purchased an old store building in Roundup and are turning it into a home and private gallery. The two-story brick building formerly housed Roundup Hardware, which closed about four years ago. Its 6,000 square feet will give them space to better display their work, and they are considering occasional invitation-only private art exhibits.
Their work is not all in luxurious woods. With commercial clients in Billings, projects are often tied to a limited budget. So they find a way to bring artistry to an interior by using less-costly materials. They succeeded by effectively using particle board in the tables and bar tops at the Railyard Ale House & Casino and reclaimed wood in Marcasa Clothing.
Blockhorse Design's work in Billings is seen also in a tanning salon and a restaurant. For Briggs Distributing, the Billings-based beverage company, Evans created a stunning conference table. It is 1,200 pounds of African mahogany with maple inset. A grape leaf motif in the center took 12 hours per foot to carve, Troy said, and there are 18 feet of carving in the table. It is functional and contemporary in design, but it also has the traditional carving.
"I like that in my work," he said, "to mix things that normally would collide, and still have a continuity in the design."
A home above Lockwood contains 46 pieces of his work, including a sculptural table with 10 chairs of rose wood and walnut along with architectural features. "It's a neat project in the sense that a lot of the architectural elements were focused around the furniture," he said.
He often collaborates with architects, and they feed off each other's ideas. He works a lot with the Billings firms Homesite Designers and Thompson Interior Associates. Designers tend to give him a lot of leeway, but the idea is to unite in a vision that works for the client.
"Something you learn in this business is how to adapt to different personalities," he said. "You have to know how far you can push a contemporary or modern motif."
Corey Oliszczak, owner of Railyard Ale House & Casino on Montana Avenue, likes the results. Oliszczak worked with designer James Kordonowy, Evans and Coila to create his unique night spot on Montana Avenue.
"I wanted more of a bigger-city feel," Oliszczak said.
With live music, Projectile Comedy every Thursday night and 27 micros on tap as well as high-end liquor, the bar attracts a wide range of clientele.
The Railyard design came about from discussions about materials, colors and applications. Evans built the cabinets, tables, the casino bar and the main bar. The table tops vary in shape and color, and all have a high-gloss surface and metal frame. Coila does all of the color work, applying dyes to the wood surfaces in unique ways.
Oliszczak said that the look he achieved is an integral part of his business' success, and customers respond with comments that his place has a good feel to it.
And yet it is a very different atmosphere from another good-feeling venue Evans worked on, Walkers Grill. His biggest contribution was the bar: two huge pieces of African mahogany dovetailed together, 32 feet long. At each end is a massive 2-foot-thick Douglas fir plinth. Up at the front of the bar he put cattle guards for patrons to rest their feet on and spurs along the top for ladies to rest their purses.
He did the tapas table, too, also in African mahogany, with reclaimed bridge planks for support. Pipes stand up through the tabletop as perches for tapas plates.
The overall design of Walkers won Thompson Interior Associates a Theresa Bradley Spirit Award, and Evans' work won him the Billings Architectural Association's craftsman of the year award in 2004.
"Everything in the Walkers bar relates the West in a new way," he said. "I'm really proud of that project. It came out great."