Making It’s Khiem Nguyen On What It’s Like to Win a Craft Competition Show
Years before all of America fell in love with Making It‘s romantic, sensitive, and highly skilled quiet man Khiem Nguyen, the master craftsman who captivated judges and fans alike on Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman’s new TV competition for creatives on NBC, I was lucky enough to get to know Khiem and his now-wife Amanda McKeever as fellow DIYers, dog parents, and Boston to Austin expats.
Last month, they invited me and my husband to watch the premiere with them and a few dozen other friends. The energy in the room was palpable, and it was pretty clear to all who were watching—even though we’d only seen the first 20 minutes of the first episode—Khiem was headed all the way to the finals and was destined to pick up a few million new fans along the way.
Now that America’s Favorite Lather(™) has won it all, found cult celebrity status among the Etsy crowd, and taken home that $100,000 wooden check, I wanted to sit down with Khiem to ask about what it was really like on the show, how he got there, and what the future holds for he and Amanda, their two rescue pups, and their business, A+K Woodworking and Design. [Interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.]
Apartment Therapy: How does it feel to have won a reality TV competition?
Khiem Nguyen: It feels crazy. I never thought I would even be on TV in the first place, let alone a reality competition show!
(Image credit: Courtesy of NBC)
AT: How did you end up on Making It?
KN: I received an email through A&K Woodworking and Design and was asked to come to an open casting call in Austin. Since A&K is just me and Amanda, we didn’t know if they were asking the both of us or not so we just decided to apply as a team. A few weeks after meeting some of the casting producers, we got a call back and were both accepted to move on to the next round! However, at this point they told us that we would not be able to apply as a team and so Amanda decided to not continue with the process. I somehow eventually made it through all the rounds and got accepted to be a contestant!
AT: When did filming start/end?
KN: Filming took about all of September 2017.
AT: Where was The Barn actually located?
KN: It was set up just outside of LA.
(Writer’s note: Check out this behind-the-scenes barn tour over on House Beautiful.)
AT: Did you all stay together during filming? On the property?
KN: Yes we all stayed at the same hotel during filming. There was an extended stay hotel nearby.
AT: Was the camaraderie, collaboration, and positivity on the show as genuine as it seemed?
KN: Absolutely. It was incredibly easy for all of us to become friends right off the bat. I can’t imagine how casting could have predicted our relationships but I’m sure it couldn’t have gone any better! We all still talk regularly and most of us have met up with each other multiple times since filming!
AT: What was it like working with Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman?
KN: It was amazing. They’re both so hilarious, cool, and easy to talk to. It really felt like we were all just hanging out and there just happened to be a bunch of cameras around.
AT: Why do you think that the judges felt your work was “dark” at the outset?
KN: I have no idea, I guess it was just Simon’s first thought when he looked at my terrarium project and rolled with it.
AT: Did you feel like your vision and aesthetic were more understood by the end?
KN: Yes, by the end I felt much better about how Simon and Dayna viewed my work. They definitely started to understand my concepts more clearly as the projects went on.
(Image credit: Courtesy of NBC)
AT: Tell us more about doing projects with your dad, and how that influenced your career choice.
KN: My dad is a super handy guy. I don’t know if there is anything he can’t do. He was always working on the house or fixing things at the apartment my parents rented out. Growing up, he always wanted me to come along with him to help him with all sorts of projects and at the time I didn’t really appreciate it nearly as much as I do now. He was also the one that gave me his 35mm camera, which is what ultimately lead me to decide to go to MassArt for photography. Art school then introduced me to woodworking.
AT: Did your time on the show change you as a maker? How?
KN: Making those projects on the show really reminded me of what I loved most about art school, which was creating pieces around other creative people. Since we started A&K, I’ve been mainly focused on trying to create for our brand. Because I’m always working on A&K now, I don’t have as much free time to play and experiment with more fun personal projects. Moving forward I want to try to spend some more time being creative with good old-fashioned art projects.
AT: How long did you really get for each “faster craft” and “master craft” challenge?
KN: The timing on them varied slightly but typically it wasn’t any more than 3 hours for each faster craft, and 12 hours for each master craft.
AT: What was your favorite challenge?
KN: My favorite challenge was the shed hack. I was super excited about the concept, and out of all the projects I worked on it was by far the riskiest. Before starting it, I felt like it should work but I honestly had no idea if it actually would. Thankfully it all came together and all the parts worked even better than I expected!
(Image credit: NBC/Getty Images)
AT: Least favorite?
KN: I think all of the contestants will agree with me on this one but I was the least excited about the snack stadium challenge. None of us really have any “food crafting” experience. I cut myself twice cutting those rice krispies! We definitely all had fun with it, though.
AT: What’s your most cherished patch?
KN: My most cherished patch would have to be the first one I got, for the Backyard Bonanza project. It was a turning point for me while on the show because that’s when I felt like the judges started to understand my projects more.
AT: Most favorite tool?
KN: Yes, I think the lathe is my favorite tool from my time on the show! It was a total surprise to see it, because it wasn’t there from the beginning. It’s a lot of fun working on a lathe and anyone that has used one totally understands what I meant by “inspired by the tools”, haha.
AT: Did you get to keep any of the projects that you made?
KN: No, we didn’t get to keep any of the projects we made. Production talked about donating some of the projects like the kids fort and shed hack.
AT: Which of your new friends are you most likely to collaborate with in the future?
KN: I’m probably most likely to collaborate with Nicole [Sweeney] in the future, since we’re both woodworkers. I’d love to collaborate with any of them though, it would be nice to work with all of them again.
AT: Which of your fellow contestant’s projects do you most wish you had made?
KN: I wish I made the taco truck, that project was genius! Billy [Kheel] did such a perfect job showcasing his style plus the make-your-own felt tacos couldn’t have been better. I also love tacos.
AT: Which one wowed you the most?
KN: Robert [Mahar’s] Easter holiday display project. It was so polished and clean on camera but even more perfect in person! I don’t know what else he could have added to it to make it any better.
AT: Which of their maker skills do you most admire/wish you possessed?
KN: Amber [Kemp-Gerstal’s] crafting ability is on point! All of her projects were so amazingly well executed. Her kids fort project was especially impressive. I doubt there was a single loose thread on that circus tent.
AT: What would viewers be most surprised to learn about the show?
KN: Viewers might be surprised by how much Jimmy Diresta actually helped out on the show. He was the master helper and definitely played his part. He has so many good tips and tricks for all kinds of crafting.
(Image credit: NBC/Getty Images)
AT: After meeting in college at MassArt in Boston, how did you and Amanda end up starting a business together in Austin?
KN: Throughout our time at MassArt, Amanda and I were always bouncing ideas off each other and helping each other out. When we moved to Austin, we only had a car full of our necessities. So when we got our first apartment in Austin, we decided to make our own furniture and then started photographing it. Then we decided to give ourselves a name, A&K Woodworking and Design, and it took off from there!
AT: Tell us more about A&K Woodworking and Design.
KN: A&K Woodworking and Design is our small woodworking business, and it’s really just me and Amanda! We make a mix of our own designed furniture as well as custom furniture and small home goods and kitchenwares. We’re looking to set up a showroom space in the near future, so stay tuned to find out more about it and when we get it up and running!
AT: Have your orders already skyrocketed after the show?
KN: Yes, we’ve received so much support! It’s been amazing. We have an online shop on our website now, which makes it easy! (Previously, A&K was selling on Etsy and with select brick-and-mortar stockists.)
AT: What are people buying the most?
KN: Our most popular pieces are our mini-lanterns. There are currently four different designs to choose from and they make easy gifts.
AT: What does the future hold for you and Amanda (and Rowdy Sue!) and the business after your big wooden check?
KN: We’re looking forward to finally taking our honeymoon to Hawaii and Japan! We also have another little pup, sweet little Lucy (a long hair chihuahua mix), and are excited to do more road trips with them! We’re also super excited about setting up a showroom space for people to see more of our work in person.
AT: Any chance I can still commission you guys to make those custom dog crate side tables we talked about a few years ago, or is that line now a million miles long? (Rowdy told me that I might still have an in.)
Khiem: Haha, oh man, if that’s what Rowdy said then consider it done!
AT: What else do you want people to know about you as a crafter/maker, your time on the show, or your business?
KN: I never could have predicted that crafting/making would get me on a TV show. It was such an amazing positive experience being on the show and I can’t express how happy I am that Amy and Nick decided to host “Making It” and that I got to meet them on it! Being creative and making things with your own hands is inherently self-rewarding and healing. Everyone needs to go out and make something!
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