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Santas Worth Gifting to Bill Gates Are Made in This McKinney Workshop

For 40 years, McKinney Artisans Brian and Cynthia Kidwell have brought the magic of Christmas to life, one Santa at a time.
| |Photography by Elizabeth Lavin
Brian Kidwell santa maker
Brian Kidwell counts Johnny Carson, the Andretti family, and Japanese royalty as customers. Elizabeth Lavin

Parts and pieces are strewed about, spilling out of drawers and off shelves. Bins struggle to wrangle assorted gears, spools, and trim. Matted coats and capes hang haphazardly above piles of discarded teddy bears, torn books, and other childhood castoffs. To the untrained eye, it might look like junk. But Brian and Cynthia Kidwell see the potential in all of it. 

For countless customers over the last 40 years, Christmas joy has come not from the North Pole but from the Kidwells’ workshop 4,000 miles south. The McKinney-based artisans’ whimsical Santa figurines—each of which is handcrafted from their treasure trove of salvaged materials—have captured the hearts of collectors, holiday fanatics, and celebrities alike. 

The Kidwells’ rewarding, if unexpected, career journey began in 1984, when Brian’s father, Al, gifted the newlyweds a Santa he’d made from repurposed goods. It wasn’t an unusual thing for the Corcoran-trained found-object sculptor to do. Through the years, the Kidwell children had accompanied their dad on junking trips and grown accustomed to receiving artful, upcycled assemblages in lieu of the items on their holiday wish lists. 

“Whatever we thought we needed or wanted, we typically didn’t get,” Brian remembers with a laugh. “I think I bought my first bicycle because my dad made us something [instead]. It was like, ‘Gee, thanks,  Dad.’  ”

But with the benefit of age and maturity, Brian recognized the specialness of his father’s gift that fateful Christmas in 1984. He took it to a showroom at the Dallas World Trade Center and left with an invitation to produce more for an upcoming show. Al and his new apprentices—Brian and Cynthia—were suddenly in business. As they found their footing, Brian was somewhat surprised to realize all he’d learned by osmosis from years assisting his old man. Before long, he was cutting, stapling, and gluing source material to fit his steampunk vision for the figurines, which saw Santa behind the wheel of flying machines, hitting the links, and more. Cynthia, the most meticulous of the three, took on the detail work, painting plaster faces that were molds of Al’s original clay sculptures. The Santas sold as fast as they could make them. 

But once the business turned into a job, Al lost interest, happily giving his blessing for his son and daughter-in-law to carry on in his wake. 

“He would show up at the crack of noon, and I’m sitting there tapping my foot, pointing at my watch,” Brian says, laughing. “He was an artist and not motivated by money.” 

Brian found a workshop—the same dilapidated lumberyard they work from today—and staffed up, employing a team of nearly 20 at their peak to help build and ship product all over the world. Their creations weren’t limited to Santa; dubbed “The Toymaker,” the outfit produced a number of other characters, all with the same fanciful look and feel. Brian’s fabrication prowess earned him other work, such as a series of flying machines he created for the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum to commemorate the 100th anniversary of flight. But the Santas remained his bread and butter.  

“A lot of our clientele are celebrities,” says Brian, who counts Johnny Carson, the Andretti family of racing fame, and Japanese royalty among their customers. The Kidwells were even commissioned to make a wedding gift for Bill Gates: a practically life-size Santa to adorn the mantel of his Washington home. “I’m sure people struggle with what to buy somebody that has everything,” Brian says. “Here’s something that they’ve never seen before.” 

With respect to the Microsoft founder, in this digital age, the Kidwells’ process is refreshingly analog, which is perhaps part of the Santas’ appeal. They take anywhere from a few days to a week or more to complete and command a hefty price to match, starting at around $2,000. The Kidwells’ designer Santas—which feature Chanel accessories, Louis Vuitton leather, and the like—fetch much more. The higher-end versions were the brainchild of Addison Green, principal buyer for Plano’s Holiday Warehouse, which is now the exclusive retailer for the Kidwells’ handiwork. 

“I can’t tell you how nervous I was, standing there with a pair of scissors and this $1,000 piece of luggage,” Brian remembers of the first Louis Vuitton suitcase he was tasked with deconstructing. “I think it took me a couple of days just to take scissors to it.” The resulting Santa, which was pushing a luggage cart of miniature LV bags, sold within hours. 

Together with Green, the Kidwells have collaborated on too many memorable projects to count. (One that comes to mind: Santa riding a full-size, saddled polar bear.) Some of the best are the custom creations for clients who request that family heirlooms be incorporated. 

A nearly life-size Santa was a wedding present for Bill Gates.

“We’ve always taken the refuse of society and turned it into something that people cherish,” Brian says. “My family’s been recycling since long before it was fashionable.”

Though they were courted by Bergdorf Goodman this year, the complexities of shipping sounded like a lot more hassle than the Kidwells—both 64 and slowing down—were looking to take on at this point. They’re much happier merely packing up their truck and hauling product to Plano. Proud grandparents to four, with a fifth on the way, they enjoy spending more time outside the office these days.  

“Neither of our kids will follow in our footsteps, so when we build our last Santa, that will be the end,” Brian says. And though Al—the “founding father,” as his son calls him—passed away in 2001, Brian is grateful for the legacy that he and Cynthia have been able to carry on. 

“We never dreamed that, 40 years later, people would still want to put our work in their homes and be part of their holiday celebration,” he says. “It’s more than we could have ever imagined.”     

This story originally appeared in the December issue of D Magazine with the headline “Santa’s Helpers.” Write to [email protected].


Jessica Otte

Jessica Otte

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Jessica Otte is the executive editor of D Home and D Weddings. In 2006, she helped launch D CEO as…