For 40 years, David Polivka not only survived but thrived building furniture by hand in the age of Ikea. His client list read like a Who’s Who of Kansas City — Hall, Ward, Tivol, Kemper.
In 1995, he crafted the interior of power couple Charles and Patty Garney’s Briarcliff mansion. Patty, a civic leader, threw big fundraising parties that gave countless locals a glimpse of Polivka’s art: gleaming curved paneling, carved newel posts, stately bookcases and secret doors. (The home was destroyed by fire, possibly electrical, two years ago.)
Polivka LLC, inside the former Wells Fargo stagecoach station on Third Street under the Broadway Bridge, had 10 full-time, full-benefits employees when the economy collapsed in 2008. Over the next four years, Polivka had to lay them all off, one by one.
“I was cooked, man,” says Polivka, who graduated from Shawnee Mission North in 1971 and talks like a character out of “Easy Rider.” “I kept hoping I could land one last job that would allow me to retire.”
Instead of a deep-pockets client, Matt Castilleja walked through the door in 2012. Castilleja (cas-tee-YAY-ha) was 25 at the time, with a bachelor’s in studio art from University of Missouri-Kansas City and a small business making stuff out of reclaimed wood in his grandmother’s garage.
His unfinished, weathered pieces were easy to make and sold well, but he was frustrated. He wanted to execute higher-quality designs.
“There’s only so much you can learn from YouTube or woodworking magazines, so one day I walked into David’s shop and asked for an internship and he said, ‘No.’ ”
Castilleja kept coming anyhow, working without pay.
Three years later, the student has earned the trust — and business — of the master.
Cutting out shortcuts
Polivka had a soft spot for the kid, who seemed to have a stronger work ethic than some graduate student interns he had paid in better times.
Born into a Kentucky coal mining family, Polivka, whose grandfather was killed in a mine and whose father died at 42 of cancer, saw in Castilleja the same passion that had driven him to learn an ancient craft. Polivka worked alongside master cabinet makers at Stultz Manufacturing Co., a high-end woodworking shop in Kansas City, Kan., in the 1970s and ’80s.
“Man, I was just a kid, and these old guys were making everything with hand saws and hand planers and doing veneers and stuff. It was bad-ass! I didn’t know it was dying and that I was the last guy interested in that stuff. Nobody’s left now except the hobby guys,” Polivka says.
Castilleja knows woodworking is a dinosaur trade and doesn’t care. He wants to devote himself to keeping the endangered traditions alive.
Growing up on the West Side, Castilleja used to ride his bicycle through the Crossroads and downtown as a young boy (“I wasn’t supposed to, but I did.”) They were ghost towns after 5 p.m., but in his late teenage years he witnessed the complete rebirth of both neighborhoods, and a renewed appreciation for solid old buildings. Maybe it would translate into a renaissance for well-built furniture, which fascinated Castilleja.
He remembers as a kindergartener visiting a cousin’s house for a family dinner and standing all alone in the dining room admiring the reflection of a window in the dining room table.
“I was running my hand over the table and my grandma walked in. I asked her why this table was so much smoother and shinier than ours, and she said, ‘I think it’s the Pledge.’ I knew it wasn’t the Pledge, even though I didn’t know why I was drawn to it,” he recalls.
Michele Polivka, David’s wife and business partner of 25 years, describes herself as naturally distrusting and says she was skeptical the first time she met the tall, well-dressed, soft-spoken Castilleja.
“I mean, in walks this beautiful hunk of a man with these elegant manners, and I’m thinking, ‘There must be something wrong with him,’ ” she says.
Castilleja says he is a romantic by nature, but there was nothing romantic about his unpaid internship at Polivka. It was a calculated economic decision, driven by not wanting to come out of graduate school with a huge student loan debt and no job prospects.
The Polivkas were tough on Castilleja. “I had to unlearn what I thought I had learned on my own, and adapt to execute work at a much higher level,” he says.
In the beginning, he frequently suggested shortcuts to David Polivka: “Why not do it this way? It seems like it would be quicker.” Time and again Polivka would answer, “Quicker won’t last, man!”
Michele Polivka remembers Castilleja pulling out a beautiful leather sketch pad, wanting to show her intricate drawings of his furniture designs.
“He had rainbows and unicorns in his eyes,” she says, laughing. “I would tell him, ‘Shut that book and get out on the shop floor and build that (stuff)! You’ve got to smell the wood, eat it and breathe it.’ ”
A new trade
Castilleja was able to make ends meet by bartending at night. His family helped with shelter.
“They own several properties, all under some level of construction, and I didn’t mind living in a house with the back wall cut off, or showering under a garden hose in the basement.”
Alexis Castilleja, Matt’s mom, admits to being uneasy at first about the unpaid apprenticeship.
“I was worried, of course,” she says. “I couldn’t figure out how he was going to support himself, and that kind of fell on us and that was worrisome. But as parents, you do your best to give your kids what they need.”
Slowly she began to see that the education Matt was getting from a renowned woodworker was perhaps more valuable than graduate school. And it was a good fit with the hands-on artistic nature he had exhibited since childhood.
Over time, the Polivkas, who don’t have children, came to view Matt as a son. They even let him build out a 12-by-7-foot loft space in the shop to live in it for a year.
They grilled him about his future plans: Was he thinking of moving to another city? Was he getting married soon? Was building furniture what he wanted to do with his life?
“They wanted to know if my mind and heart were truly in it,” Castilleja says. He assured them he was committed to Kansas City and wanted to launch himself on a career in woodworking before starting a family.
After Castilleja showed skill at learning classic joinery and techniques, David Polivka started taking him to meetings to see how he would interact with designers and architects.
Interpersonal skills are critical for working on any building project, says bronze sculptor and former home builder Jeff Martinique, who hired Polivka for a lot of luxury residences.
“There are always conflicts between architects and interior designers, or engineers and woodworkers, or between the electricians and the heating and air guys. But David was one of the most amiable people in the puzzle,” Martinique says. “He never blamed anyone. He would figure out a way to communicate with all the trades.”
Castilleja proved adept in meetings. He also labored to understand bidding and billing.
He learned from Michele to say “no” to people who wanted the quality of hand-built furniture but not the price point.
“David and I were really proud of him,” Michele Polivka says. “I could see him starting to connect the dots. It’s plate-spinning, and he was finally getting it.”
Meanwhile, David Polivka was becoming interested in hydroponic indoor gardening systems after seeing them in a River Market shop. He threw himself into researching applications in forestry, year-round food production and medical marijuana growing and began experimenting in his basement with different growing mediums for heirloom tomatoes.
Woodworking had worn his body out, and this new venture would be sales, not building.
Then last spring, when a client came in with a big residential interior job, Castilleja remembers Michele and David saying, “This is the last job for Polivka. Any new work that comes in the door is going to be Castilleja LLC. Are you ready?”
The Polivkas told Castilleja he could have the business and the shop equipment for free.
Castilleja remembers a “wave of sheer terror” washing over him, but he realized it was the opportunity of a lifetime.
One day in December, David Polivka walked over and, with a large grin, set a huge rectangular 1980s Rolodex on Castilleja’s bench.
“He didn’t need to say anything,” Castilleja says. “I knew the gravity of the gesture.”
The transfer of the business took effect in January. Since then, work has slowly flowed in.
Kansas City designer and longtime Polivka client George Terbovich welcomes the new lease on life for the respected wood shop.
“It’s a natural transition from David to Matt,” Terbovich says. “They are both incredibly detailed craftsman. It’s a wonderful legacy David is leaving him with — the standard of excellence that always comes out of that shop. And Matt brings a fresh viewpoint to contemporary furniture.”
These days David Polivka, now 62, happily tinkers with his tomato plants and grow lights in the basement of the shop. He already has hired two local employees and a full-time sales person in Michigan to represent his new company, Growpito.
When Castilleja, now 29, comes down the stairs and taps Polivka on the shoulder to ask him how to do something, it’s a joy, not a burden for Polivka.
Michele, 61, continues to play a “mom” role for Castilleja, rejecting his first attempt at a sign for the building. It was not up to the standard he should want to project, she told him.
Even having Rufus, Polivka’s shop dog, around provides Castilleja a welcome sense of continuity as the apprentice works to fill the large shoes of his mentor.
He recently got a “real” apartment downtown, a mile from the shop, and is balancing existing custom projects with his vision for the future of Castilleja LLC: lines of hand-crafted furniture that he will introduce at the high-end International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York in the spring of 2017. He sees growing the business to at least its previous size, creating jobs for talented, committed craftsmen and women.
The furniture lines, which he hopes to sell across the country and in Kansas City, will be fully handcrafted and delivered assembled by blanket shippers, not flat-packed. Price will start at around $850 for a chair, $1,700 for a coffee table and $2,800 for queen-sized beds.
“To me, it’s about continuing a stream of philosophy and techniques that have been passed down for thousands of years that are threatened by society’s throwaway mentality,” Castilleja says. “I see it as my duty to pass on the knowledge David has given me and to seek out and train gifted craftsmen and craftswomen to keep that tradition alive.”
Castilleja says he is deeply grateful for everything the Polivkas have done for him, but he doesn’t view the transition of the business as a gift.
“I look at it as: They set standards and gave me the opportunity to earn it or to fail. If I had failed they would have sold the business.”
Reaching underneath his desk to pat Rufus on the head, Castilleja says, “I couldn’t be happier about the future, or more afraid, or more humbled.”