Woodwork of Art

Matt Castilleja
Matt Castilleja

Kansas City furniture maker Matt Castilleja turned an apprenticeship with Polivka into a full-time gig with diligence and an eye for precision

Matt Castilleja was just 25 when he knocked on the door of David Polivka’s woodworking shop to ask for an internship. When the local high-end furniture and cabinet maker told him no, Castilleja continued to stop in until Polivka finally took him under his wing. After a year as Polivka’s apprentice, the UMKC grad began creating furniture under his own name and was given the keys to the shop after Polivka retired in January.

During your apprenticeship, you went unpaid, slept in unfinished houses and showered under a hose. What kept you motivated?

Matt Castilleja: I knew the value of what I was learning. I knew that I wouldn’t have been able to get this at a graduate school. It was basically like I was investing in my future, so I was really driven by that. Honestly, I just wanted to make cool things. I wanted the challenge to do something with absolute precision, to make something beautiful and make somebody happy. Having clients see the piece is really rewarding. It just makes me happy.

How long from start to finish does it take for you to complete a piece?

MC: It depends; they usually take several weeks working on and off. I try to have several pieces going at once—between three and five at a time. But if I were to take one piece and work on it 24/7, I could have it done a lot quicker than that. You have to let the wood acclimate once you start cutting into it, or you have to let the glue dry. Certain things take time to do. It’s a delicate dance.

What did you learn from Polivka that couldn’t be taught elsewhere?

MC: It’s different than a classroom setting because I was here every day with David and Michele. I got to see the entire business in its raw form. I got to see the everyday workings, the bidding process, client meetings and those relationships, because you do form a relationship with your clients, especially when you’re working on a project that takes months to make. Just handling that, working with contractors, I couldn’t get that at school.

What did it feel like when David retired and gave you the keys to Polivka, to own this shop?

MC: I’m sure he was relieved. I, on the other hand, was terrified. I was over the moon—it’s so exciting. I’m very fortunate to have had him as a mentor and to have his clients now. But also, there’s a lot of responsibility and there’s a lot of pressure to produce work at a level that’s in keeping with the Polivka name. He’s done some of the most amazing pieces ever made in the area and in the Midwest. There’s a lot of pressure, but I was dedicated and I took the time to learn it.

What’s your vision for Castilleja?

MC: To pursue the signature lines, and then start hitting different shows in the country.  That’s what I want to really go after. Really, I just want to offer something that’s quality and locally made so people can come in, take a look at what I have in stock and they can buy it. There needs to be an alternative to the box store.

Adding to His Collection

Although Castilleja began his apprenticeship working on custom orders from David Polivka’s clients, he plans to do less custom work as his signature line of furniture develops.

“I’ll always do custom work. It’s always there and there’s always the opportunity to do something really neat,” Castilleja says. “But those will be on a case-by-case basis.“

Castilleja’s first signature line, which he plans to complete in the spring of 2017, will feature four to five pieces including a dining chair, dining table, lounge chair and coffee table.

“It’s classified as classic contemporary, but it’s really traditional in terms of construction methods,” Castilleja says. “It has a very contemporary design that pays homage to ancient and classical furniture and is layered with subtle details.”

The woodworker plans to add other lines to his furniture collection as his business develops.

“People can come in, take a look at what I have in stock and buy it,” Castilleja says. “It’s old school in construction but really contemporary in aesthetic.”