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Heartland Honed

Furniture maker Matt Castilleja marries traditional skills and contemporary style in his West Bottoms shop

Looking at Matt Castilleja’s contemporary furniture, some find it hard to believe that he is from the Midwest. 

Matt recounts a time when he was at a showcase in New York City and a man approached him.

“He was like, ‘I saw you standing there, but I just didn’t know if you’d speak English or not because I look and I see the work, I see the name — I figured you’d be a vendor from like Spain or Italy or somewhere,’” recalls Matt. “And I was like, ‘Nope, I’m from Kansas City.’ And he was like, ‘No you’re not, I’m from Kansas City and this doesn’t come from Kansas City.’ He’s one of our best clients now.”

Matt Castilleja, the owner of Castilleja Furniture + Objects, is a furniture maker. He describes his work as classic contemporary, with clean, architectural lines but traditional joinery and materials — “A contemporary design philosophy but it’s still rooted in the past,” he says. 

And it makes sense that some might think his work was more European, instead of made by someone from Kansas City. He has a traditional background in woodworking, learning his skillset in the same shop where his current business resides in the West Bottoms. But his business was kickstarted after taking a European trip when he turned 30, traveling through Paris, London, Austria, and Italy. 

“After seeing that, I was like, ‘I could do that,’” says Matt about his European trip. “[It] gave me the guts to just go for it because I saw their shop. They had the same tools and they were doing it with less space and I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to do this and I’m just gonna make this happen.’”

While European artisans are often revered for their craftsmanship, Matt had the epiphany on his trip that there was really nothing different about makers in Europe when it came to tools and resources.

“It made me really realize that they were people too — they're making things with their hands,” says Matt. “There’s no reason why someone producing something in Milan or Paris — they’re no better than we are. There’s no reason why we can’t produce something like that here that’s of high quality and could be on the same world stage, basically. That was really the point that really inspired me to do that show in New York.”

After returning back to Kansas City from Europe, inspired by all the shops and design work he saw during his time there, Matt set to work and applied for a high-profile furniture show in New York, the International Contemporary Furniture Fair. He was accepted to the show and decided to go for it — a large investment for his fledgling business at the time. He drove his furniture from Kansas City to New York City in an old van with a lopsided wheel. 

Matt’s decision to do the New York show was a huge turning point in his business, which took off after that. Since then, his work has been published in Elle Decor Magazine and Architectural Digest. One of his pieces is on the 92nd floor in a residential tower in New York City that overlooks Central Park, placed right in front of an 8 million dollar Basquiat painting. But while most of his work ends up on the coasts and has a European influence, he also knows he couldn’t have launched his business if it wasn’t for his start in the Midwest. 

“It’s a good place to work — to kind of produce work in — because there’s so much opportunity to grow,” says Matt of the Midwest. “It’s kind of an incubator of sorts for a lot of different industries.”

While it can be easy to assume the Midwest is flyover country for creativity too, Matt appreciates it as a foundation for his craftsmanship, which he adds to with inspiration from afar. 

“Once you start traveling and seeing the world, that adds to that experience,” says Matt about growing up in Kansas City. “I’m about finding the best quality materials and these ideas just kind of add to that palette and taking elements from the things you see. It makes me appreciate the Midwest a bit more — the more you travel, you start appreciating more of what you have and not taking it for granted so much.”

Since launching his business in 2015, Matt has gone from producing custom pieces to creating a signature line of furniture. His work is currently featured in showrooms from San Francisco to Chicago to Atlanta, such as Una Malan and CKS Collective. You can see more of his work at mattcastilleja.com.

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