Don & Louise & Kingfisher Designs

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by Kristina Domitrovich
Photos by Lindsay Pace

The first noticeable thing about Don and Louise Coulson is how much they love to laugh together.

The next is their back-and-forth way of adding to a conversation –– maybe Don’s talking initially, then he’ll turn to Louise who adds a tidbit here or a correction there. They might pause to laugh about something together, then Don will jetty off of what Louise said, and continue on. They were married 1968, so they’ve had plenty of time to learn the ins and outs of conversing in tandem. So when they talk about how they met, it may start out something like this: “I was in a bathtub,” Louise said, and paused for a moment before smoothing over with, “I was dressed. I was just studying.”

They met in college. Don jumped in with information about how he was working nights to put himself through school, and his friend was dating Louise’s roommate. He went over to the roommate’s apartment for the three of them to study, but got there too early, so he went to shave in their bathroom. Louise added here that Don didn’t even notice her at first.

“So it really wasn’t even dramatic,” Louise said, laughing. “It sounds worse than it was, doesn’t it? It always does.” 

“Of course, it just went from there,” Don adds. “Of course! Where else could it go?”

“About a week later, he asked me to marry him,” Louise said, after elaborating on Don being a bit of a ladies’ man while she was quite the bookworm. “I thought it was weird that you asked me to marry you. Nobody’d ever asked me that before.”

“Well, I’d never asked anyone to marry me before,” he replied. They went back and forth for a minute, with Louise asking what possessed him to ask her, then he replies with a mysterious random tidbit that begs for more: “Cause you wanted to make baked potatoes rolled in a spoon handle.”

“We had no money. We had 50 cents, that’s all we had,” Louise said, swooping in to explain. “So I said, ‘You know, if we could bake potatoes in the fire at the park, and if we––’ now this is logical, if you pushed the spoon into the potato, and put the brickette on the spoon –– doesn’t that make sense? If you put that in the fire, all is well, you’re gonna have a baked potato, right? It didn’t work.”

“Oh, we were poorer than poor back then,” he added, still laughing about the raw potatoes.

He said that was their version of a night out: Camping at the park, making a potato for dinner, going fishing and eating their catch for breakfast. Louise let out an “eww” followed by a half-groan, half-laugh, Don laughed in the background as she added a stern warning to avoid fish for breakfast at all costs.

The two grew up in West Texas. He went to school to study civil structural engineering, and she studied education. 

Don had a job lined up in Houston, somewhere he’d interned the summer before. His boss promised him a job after graduation, so they just had to make it back to Houston right after they were married. They had to borrow Don’s dad’s car, a Ford Pinto, and credit card to get there. Without much money, they ate their leftover wedding cake, bought one bottle of celebratory wine, “a real cheap bottle” Don added, and spent their honeymoon driving from West Texas to Houston, eating cake the whole way. 

“Everything we owned was in that car,” he said. “Her guitar, an ironing board––”

“Ironing board,” Louise says simultaneously. “My mother said I have to have an ironing board––”

“And a stereo,” he said. 

When they got to Houston, they got an apartment, and Louise finished school at the University of Houston. About two months after that, they bought their first boat.

“And we’ve never been without ‘em,” she said. “Little skips and kayaks and this, that and the other, and then we had the big boat.”

The other thing noticeable about Don and Louise is their love for travel –– and good thing, too, because they’ve moved 43 times since they were married. They’ve lived in “hotels or campers or wherever,” and they’ve spent a lot of time living on boats and lived in the New England area a lot. Louise likes to joke that their lifestyle taught their kids to “have wings, not roots.”

They moved around so much for Don’s job because he’d get assigned to different building projects for his engineering firm. Louise, a teacher, had to pick up a few other careers –– things more suitable for their flowing lifestyle. She became a fiber artist for 35 years, built websites for marine businesses and artists, and was a writer for a monthly column in the now-shut-down “Living Aboard” national houseboat magazine for 14 years. 

They’ve found it best if they’re always tinkering, working on something. The two refuse to be what Louise calls “sitting, watching-TV people.” “We just do things,” she said. So they decided to start crafting together. In 2002, they started working together on jewelry. At the time, they were living in a camper in Greenville, South Carolina. 

The same way they tell their story is how Don and Louise work together.

“We made a little table and got little torches, and we got our little ‘Dink, dink, dink’ hammers,” Don said, mimicking a hammering motion with his hand as he laughs. “She’s actually the designer, I’m more of the crafter.”

Don likes to say that as an engineer his feet are firmly planted in the ground, while hers are “firmly planted midair.”

Louise did the details and design, and Don did the configuring to make her visions a reality. 

“She does gorgeous work,” Don said. 

The duo did very well for themselves, and attended 25-26 craft shows a year and their work was featured in about 14 different galleries. 

But around 2008, they saw a shift in the market. As the economy declined, so did their numbers. They decided to shift gears while they could. Or at least that’s what Don saw; Louise was bored making the same pieces over and over, so she was looking to jump ship from jewelry anyways.

“You get tired of making the same thing,” she said with a shrug. “(The jewelry aspect) is not totally gone, but it’s pretty well gone.”

They switched over and became metalsmiths, instead. With this route, they mostly make serving pieces or small things for the home, “more of a house adornment, if you wish,” Don added. There’s a sense of practicality to their pieces now; more suitable to a scaled-down lifestyle or a purpose-driven home collection.

“If you drop it, it’s not going to do any damage other than maybe to your floor,” Don said laughing.

“We love one-of-a-kind pieces,” Louise said, so they make a lot of those.

The couple believes that thanks to their jewelry background, their metalwork now is really ornate and intricate. They mostly use copper, but also a fair amount of silver in their work, too. Louise is still the designer, and Don works on bringing it together. She does the finer hammering work –– hammering and chiseling designs and patterns into a piece, then gives it to Don to shape it or add a handle. Don also does engraving, and tends to work with the metals while they’re “cool,” though it’s not unusual to bring metals to their melting points.

One process they grew passionate about is what they like to call “silver fusion.” Basically, Don brings silver and copper to their almost-melting points (which are two different temperatures), and they will swirl together and act as one; once it cools, the silver is visible against the copper, but “it actually fuses, it doesn’t sit on top,” he said. 

“Sometimes you just follow the metal,” he says. “You just do what it tells you.”

And sometimes, the conversation between him and the metal doesn’t go well. Metal can be finicky, and it seems to throw a tantrum or crack if it’s overheated or heated too quickly. But if it’s treated just right, that’s when magic can happen.

“You can take copper up to various temperatures, and it’ll refract a certain color,” he said.

Patinas will also change the color of copper, and Louise does all the patinaing. She said the universal patina is usually Liver of Sulfur, which will turn things brown –– anything from giving copper its signature color, to using on silver, “it will literally make your silver brown.” But she was taught an insider’s tip, and she can patina a copper piece to bring out “rainbow colors” like blues, purples and greens.

The whole process, from design to finish, can take quite a while. Once they have a prototype, Don can make certain pieces in batches of six to eight.

“Each one has its own little quirks now, they’re not all just exactly alike,” she added. “He’s not a machine.” 

Whereas Louise’s intricate hammering has to be done individually, one piece at a time. A lot of times, the couple may have to make their own tools, or modify their tools, in order to get them to make the design they want. But they’re both dedicated to the process.

“You wish you could do it a lot faster, but then what you do is you’re losing a lot of craftsmanship,” Don said. “A lot of these (pieces) have a personality because I put it into it, or she’s put it into it.”

“For me, I don’t care how long it takes. I mean, we’re going to survive whether we sell anything,” Louise adds. “We’ll still have supper. That’s my motto: We’ll still have supper.”

One piece, “Walk in the Woods,” now in the Metal Museum in Memphis, took them 70 days to complete. The 14-inch fruit bowl sits on an engraved steel pedestal. The whole thing reaches five-inches tall and weighs three pounds. The bowl’s design, which displays their silver fusion technique, consists of 17 leaves, each intricately detailed by Louise.

Leaves are a common motif throughout their pieces, and that’s in part thanks to Louise.

“I was raised in West Texas, and there’s a desert,” she laughed. “There aren’t very many trees (there), and I love trees and I love leaves.”

These days, the couple lives in Aberdeen, Mississippi. Years ago, around 2003, they decided to take a year off work, back when they were still in New England. They wanted to travel on their boat-turned-home, which was 60-feet long. 

Louise paints a map of their route, “from Boston down to New York state around the Statue of Liberty for a couple of days, and then we went up the Hudson River, went through the Erie Canal,” eventually squiggling their way down the Mississippi River. They were headed to visit one of their children in Mobile, Alabama, and when they got off of The Mississippi, they found their property. 

It’s a riverside lot, and at the time there was just a concrete slab and a roof. Louise said they drove their boat through the river and found “it was deep enough for our boat,” and a week later they bought the property. They began building the rest of their home, starting with a laundry room and shower.

“We’d done public laundry for 25 years,” Louise said. “It was nice to have a laundry at home.” With their own hands, following Don’s design that time, they finished the house over the next four years –– taking time off to work and travel some more. 

“Of all the boats we’ve had, we’ve always had a hard time naming a boat,” Don reflects. “We’ve named some that we’ve regretted. We named one ‘Fun Floozy.’”

When he said the name, he burst out into laughter, and Louise stifled hers as she was filing down a tool that wasn’t working just as she had wanted it to. She added that her mother made the couple and their two young children satin jackets with the name on the back.

So when it came to naming their business, they wanted to be sure. When they were driving onto their property, “a kingfisher flew right in front of us,” Don remembered. 

“And it was probably the less thought-behind (name) than any other name we had,” he said.

“Nope,” Louise adds, “There wasn’t any thought.”

There, in their little Aberdeen, riverside home with their boat tied up, and a RV and van ready to go to shows, the two craft together under the name Kingfisher Designs. 

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