Matt Castilleja’s River Market furniture business ships sculptural and elemental pieces from coast-to-coast — often surprising high-end customers and design fans with the craftsman’s firmly planted Kansas City roots, said Castilleja.
“People would think we were some New York boutique or based in someplace like Spain or Italy — more established design communities,” the owner of Castilleja Furniture | Objects said. “It feels great to say we are from Kansas City and represent the work we can create here.”
Each piece is built from humble beginnings — and a bit of unexpected payback, Castilleja said, planing beneath the surface of the furniture business’ backstory.
Years before his current-day success, he worked as a longtime, unpaid intern for David Polivka, his mentor and an acclaimed woodworker. Polivka’s 40,000-square-foot studio space in River Market was filled with materials and equipment, he said.
“I was working multiple jobs while interning. Just one day, [Polivka] decided they were closing down shop and gave me everything as four and a half years’ of back pay. It was a bit terrifying, but I knew I had to go for it — it was one of those pivotal moments,” recalled Castilleja.
He founded the furniture business in 2012, around the same time he started interning for Polivka Furniture.
“I walked through the doors at Polivka, and it was just this amazing, old building filled with any woodworking machine you could ever imagine — and much bigger than the little, half-of-a garage I was working in. I immediately knew that this was the place I needed to be,” Castilleja said, noting that he picked up a broom and started sweeping for Polivka that very same day.
Going from intern to building owner overnight, Castilleja had to buckle down and learn how to think critically, he said, a lesson his mentor ingrained in him early on.
“Before I started working [at Polivka Furniture], I was quick to rush through something just to get it done,” Castilleja explained. “I really had to learn to slow down — keep my mouth shut and just listen and watch. … Now I wouldn’t let something with my name on it go out the door if it was anything short of the best.”
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Renovating the space
When Castilleja took over the River Market space, he knew he wanted the building to be more than a woodshop, he noted.
Building up the local artist community, Castilleja remodeled the second floor of the building to host 10 art studios — ranging from 200-square-feet to 1,500-square-feet spaces. The third floor was turned into a gallery space where (before the COVID-19 pandemic) Castilleja hosted art exhibitions and even a ballet performance.
“The artists in this building range from architects to interior designers, mixed media painters and ceramicists — so it’s been an incredible opportunity to work around people who do all these different mediums,” Castilleja said. “It’s been exciting to be around them at a time like this when there are no shows going on.”
Some of Castilleja’s tenants have turned to the digital realm to share their art with the community, he said — noting he would like to do the same.
“Everyone finds a creative way to continue working,” he said. “It’s out of my realm, but I’m hoping to find or host a digital show.”
Along with having an influential mentor, design shows were fundamental in Castilleja expanding his business to Los Angeles and New York, he said.
Castilleja partnered with Zahner — a Kansas City-based architectural metal & glass company — in 2017 for New York City’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF). The partners have also shown at the 2018 ICFF and the 2019 Westedge Design Fair in Santa Monica, California. They were selected to show at the Architectural Digest Show in 2020, but it was canceled because of the pandemic, he noted.
“Doing these shows have really put us on the map in terms of finding clientele on the coasts,” Castilleja said. “It’s a totally different market than what’s found here in the Midwest. But just being able to take our work and get it out onto the world stage was a dream.”
Although the pandemic put a halt to design shows, Castilleja is still focused on growing his coastal clientele and prepping for future shows — possibly the New York Luxe show in the fall if health and safety restrictions allow.
“Also developing our own work is what I am most excited for,” he shared. “We’re working at that level that I’ve always wanted to be at — I’m proud of it. But I know what there’s always room to do better.”
Castilleja credited his team with being a major part of why he’s been able to grow the quality of the work, as well as the business itself.
“My team is everything to me, and we also have several interns who work with us. We’re always looking for help,” he said. “I would love to give advice where I can and help the next generation of [woodworkers] — just like how my mentors helped me.”
For Castilleja’s 30th birthday a few years back, he decided to find inspiration and take a solo trip to Austria and Italy — wandering around Rome, Florence and Milan, he recalled.
“I spent my time exploring the buildings, looking at the chairs they use and how people dress,” Castilleja said. “That trip really impacted me. It was one of those times I was able to be alone to truly listen and experience a different culture.”
As someone who attended architecture school, Castilleja often thinks about the structure of the item he is creating — asking himself, “Is this going to function properly for a long time?”
“With my work, I try to remember my architectural training and streamline that knowledge with this classic contemporary design,” he continued. “I try to pull a lot of those details from ancient designs, whether that be from an ancient building or throne. I like to play with those details that have worked for centuries or millennia and give them a bit of a contemporary twist.”
Click here to check out Castilleja’s collection of work.
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.