Maker City KC

How KC native Matt Castilleja went from unpaid intern to high-end furniture designer

Furniture maker David Polivka gives his studio to Matt Castilleja

Master craftsman furniture maker David Polivka decided the time was right to retire from the woodworking business so he gifted his studio space and designs to his intern of four years, furniture maker Matt Castilleja, who is crafting his own desig
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Master craftsman furniture maker David Polivka decided the time was right to retire from the woodworking business so he gifted his studio space and designs to his intern of four years, furniture maker Matt Castilleja, who is crafting his own desig

Matt Castilleja was studying architecture at the University of Missouri-Kansas City when the Great Recession hit in 2008.

The Kansas City native loved his classes, but was wary of racking up more college debt during a time of economic uncertainty — so he left UMKC to pursue a welding certificate from Metropolitan Community College.

Castilleja hustled for odd jobs — like fabricating gates and fences — but quickly realized that he needed to strengthen his technical skill set if he wanted to create the sophisticated designs he drew on paper. He asked David Polivka, a furniture maker with a studio in the River Market, for an unpaid internship.

“I said I’d sweep the floors and do whatever it took,” Castilleja says. “I worked that for four or five years and bartended at night.”

Castilleja’s hard work paid off: Three years ago, Polivka retired and left his studio, machinery and materials to his apprentice.

Since then, Castilleja has been working to build a name for himself with his high-end, sculptural furniture. Castilleja pieces are works of art — and they aren’t cheap. His Plinth dining table, with its corrugated antique verte marble base and solid rift sawn white oak top, retails for $11,500.

Around half of Castilleja tables, desks and credenzas are sold to buyers in Kansas City. The furniture maker often works with designers such as Lisa Schmitz and Kurt Knapstein. The other half of the furniture maker’s customers live in places such as New York City, Miami and Denver.

You can also see Castilleja’s work locally at the Crossroads Hotel and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s Quay Coffee shop. The coffee shop, located in the Bloch Building that Castilleja once admired in his UMKC architecture classes, features angular cabinets, tabletops and counters designed and built by Castilleja and his team of artisans.

“I’m part of the Nelson’s permament collection, as I like to think,” he says.

We recently talked with Castilleja about his expanding studio, his growing business and his advice for up-and-coming makers.

Maker City KC: What’s new with your studio?

Castilleja: We recently took over the whole building. We gutted the second floors and added nine artist studios up there. And then on the third floor we have a showroom. I used to live up there, but I recently moved out. Now it’s a gallery space that we lease to photographers or artists for art openings.

How did studying architecture prepare you to be a furniture maker?

UMKC is really great about teaching how to develop an idea. You just draw constantly and flesh those ideas out on paper first. What I did know was how to develop an idea. And I learned to take the best parts of those ideas and rework them to determine what I should move on and what I should cut loose.

Would you recommend technical school for makers?

To me it was invaluable. I got that real world experience through technical training, learning to operate machines with high amperage and voltage — basically how to not get yourself killed. Technical skills give you firsthand experience on everything from HVAC to working with power lines, operating CNC mills, doing different computer technical applications. There were all kinds of programs, but welding caught my eye. And then I got the internships that put me on track.

How do you market your furniture?

We go to the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York. It’s very expensive, and you have to apply and get accepted. You have to haul your stuff out there to display it. For nine years, I dreamed of doing that show, and I’ve been doing it for three years now. Our booth at the first year was next to people from Sweden on one side and Brooklyn on the other. There’s people from all over the world that do incredible pieces. It gave me the confidence to tell my clientele that I have a certain process, a certain style and I try to stay within those bounds.

Castilleja Judd credenza
Castilleja’s Judd credenza was inspired by a Donald Judd sculpture. Judd was an American artist known for his minimalist style. Castilleja

How do you describe your style?

(Clients) come to me for more of a sculptural, unique piece that you can’t buy from any high-end store, and certainly not a box store. It’s an investment — it’s like buying art.

What are your favorite materials to work with?

Right now we’re working with Carthage Stoneworks and we’re starting to do more marble bases as opposed to tops. That’s something you don’t see very often at all — something I was inspired by on a trip to Italy. Chuck (Erickson) at Carthage has become a good friend of mine.

Castilleja Crossroads dining table
Castilleja’s Crossroads dining table features a base of blackened steel and white forest Calcutta marble. The top is graphite stained solid walnut. Castilleja

Do you make every piece of furniture yourself?

I wear so many hats — I’m kind of tired of that phrase, but it’s true. I’m up front paying bills, answering the phone, consulting with the guys on what they’re fabricating. A lot of my guys are quite a bit older than me. They’re highly trained craftsmen. It’s great to be able to work with them, because we all learn from each other. There are usually 500 words spoken the entire day — and that’s a very talkative day. They put their heads down and get a lot of stuff done. I’m thankful and honored to have them on the team.

Where do you find design inspiration?

I look at antiques, folio books, architecture... I still have tons of architecture books I got when I was in school. When I can afford it, I love to travel. For my 30th birthday I went to visit my sister in Portugal. It was one of those experiences that was life-changing, being around all these buildings I had studied in school.

Have you ever thought about leaving Kansas City?

I used to think I needed to live in New York or L.A., or move to Milan. But there’s no way I’d be able to have what I have in any other city. I have three floors, 22,000 square feet. Just imagine what that would cost in one of those cities. I’m thankful for where I’m at and I try to keep things as simple as possible.

Are you plugged in to the local maker community?

Good buddies of mine operate Maker Village KC. We’re close to the same age, and I knew them when they were the Jarboe Collective, so I’ve kind of seen how they’ve evolved. If I don’t have the metal tool I need, I’ll call them. I go over there and use a couple of their tools every once in a while if I’m in a pinch.

Do you have any advice for up-and-coming makers?

If you want to go learn something, find somebody you can learn from and be relentless within reason. Learn when to keep your mouth closed and ears open. I have a lot of people who message me or email me and usually that’s about it. I had to beat down David (Polivka’s) door for him to say ‘Keep coming back.’

People can sit in their chair and send out 1,000 emails. It takes a special person to get up, come over here and say ‘Let me sweep the floor.’

For more info on Castilleja furniture, go to mattcastilleja.com or follow @mattcastilleja on Instagram.

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