Complex. Elegant. Refined. The same words that can be used to describe the fine wines stored in the custom wine cellars that Doc Watters creates for clients can all be applied to the beautiful and inspired designs themselves.

To understand the thoughtful, dynamic wine environments Watters invents and constructs requires getting to know the man behind them. Rather than shelving systems (though they are indeed functional), Watters’s cellars are freestanding, self-supporting sculptural installations strategically illuminated to pull the eye and emphasize forms—all while protecting prized bottles, of course.

“After 30 years of designing cellars, I’ve never done the same cellar twice.”

Raised in the Midwest, Watters became interested in design early on, though at the start of his college career he intended to go to Seminary. After shifting his focus toward design, he initially considered commercial design and advertising, then graphics, until an apprenticeship with a sculptor his junior year sparked his interest for design and fabrication.

Following a yearlong apprenticeship, Watters transferred to the Art Institute of Chicago, where he immersed himself in studying Constructivism, a precursor to Cubism, which heavily influences his work today. The movement, as Watters describes it, is the interpretation of personality using geometry. “I studied straight lines and 90-degree angles pretty exclusively for four years after I left the Art Institute,” Watters says. “I wouldn’t call it the interest of too many people, but it held mine.”

Wine Cellars with Style: Doc Waters WorkshopWatters has developed a system of components that make up his products. He has three employees who construct his designs in his workshop. Once the racking, countertops, valances, and displays have been built, they’re shipped to their final location, where Watters’s team will install them in the cellar. 

Many of the cellars Watters designs incorporate curves, which at first might seem counterintuitive given his years of linear study, but, he explains, “The curves are actually made up of facets of straight lines. I can define everything that I do within the space where the wine cellar is designed by geometric patters that use a series of straight lines that cause the usual interpretation of curves.”

Watters loves contrast, and to help highlight the horizontal planes of his work, he likes to use a combination of woods. By using a lighter color for the wrapping, he creates a lattice-like appearance, and sets off the unfinished racking with a surface that’s satin-finished—just a few of the details that set his cellars apart.

“I finally was able to identify a product that would allow me to incorporate my design background and turn it into something that people really wanted.”

The path from the Art Institute to wine cellar design wasn’t exactly a straight line. In the late 1970s, following school, Watters was a cab driver in Chicago. When he realized he didn’t enjoy that very much, he joined his brother-in-law in his remodeling business, and began designing and selling kitchens along the North Shore. This would be the job that led to wine cellar design—but not for a number of years.

Periodically, clients would call the kitchen design office asking if the firm would design wine racks. Watters had a small sculpture studio that was just large enough to accommodate a table saw, radial arm saw, and a small worktable, and he’d create racks that would hold wine bottles. This was before anyone was interested in the design aspect or possibilities of wine storage. Then, the arrival of the Internet started putting new money into the pockets of people who began building big houses, which were large enough to hold home theaters, exercise rooms…and wine cellars.

Suddenly, homeowners wanted their wine rooms to be visually appealing, and this opened the door for Watters to bring design into his work. He built his first cellar in 1986. “I started playing with radius corners and line weight and sections of the room intersecting with other sections. It was a pretty exciting time in my design life, where I finally was able to identify a product that would allow me to incorporate my design background and turn it into something that people really wanted.”

“Beyond functionality, I want clients to walk in and feel excited about owning that wine cellar, and excited about bringing their friends in to see it.”

Today, Watters, who is based in Denver, Colorado, designs cellars for clients all over the country. Some are more utilitarian than others, and some are straight versus curved, but they all present opportunities to thoughtfully consider the space. He’s worked with interior designers in Miami, developers in Colorado, and contractors in Texas, and has been in the business for so long that he’s now designing the third cellar for some of his longtime clients.

Wine Cellars with Style: Cellare DetailsA cellar designed by Watters. He builds in extensive lighting for his projects.

The process can vary, but it usually begins with Watters listening to clients describe their desires for their cellar. This gives him a feel for what they want and need, and then, without going into too many specifics, he puts something down on paper (Watters does all of his designing with pencil and paper) and presents it to them. If they don’t like it, he starts over, but this gives him an opportunity to show them a creative concept. “Ultimately,” Watters says, “It’s my job to give [the client] a room that they love and that is going to function properly. I don’t want to be liable for a multi-million dollar wine collection. But beyond functionality, I want them to walk in and feel excited about owning that wine cellar, and excited about bringing their friends in to see it.”

Being in the business for multiple decades has allowed Watters to evolve and refine his process, and to design countless cellars, none of which are the same. This constant reinvention suits him just fine. “After 30 years of designing cellars, I’ve never done the same cellar twice. What it is that holds my interest is being able to still surprise myself with the actual result of walking into a room and seeing something I haven’t done before.”

We’ll raise a glass to that.

Want more? Browse behind-the-scenes pictures of Watters’s workshop and see more photos of featured project in the above gallery. See more of Watters’s cellars here

Photography by Katie Neuman for The Scout Guide.