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Eco-Friendly Furniture
The Costantinis on keeping their green business rooted in Riverwest and giving back to the community

By REBECCA KONYA
Photos by Matt Haas

October 2015

         

La Lune Collection co-founders Mario and Cathy Costantini.

Long before the green movement took root in interior design, La Lune Collection has been quietly crafting its environmentally friendly furniture in its Riverwest workshop for more than 35 years.

Mario and Cathy Costantini favor invasive wood species like poplar and willow to construct their upscale rustic furniture. The fast-growing varieties, which are native to Wisconsin, tend to overpopulate the state.

"Cutting down poplar allows other native trees to grow back," explains Mario.

The Costantinis began using poplar two decades ago when the DNR approached the couple about using the harvest wood for its furniture designs.

As students at Marquette University, neither Mario nor Cathy guessed they would one day be making furniture that has attracted a following of high-profile clients like Ralph Lauren, Oprah Winfrey and John McCain.

While the majority of La Lune’s business is residential, the furniture maker also has a solid commercial customer base from national hotel chains and resorts, including the Disney Corporation, to trendy restaurants. Locally, La Lune’s unique hand-crafted pieces can be found at Colectivo coffee shops, Potowatomi Hotel & Casino and Camp Bar.

All of La Lune’s pieces are manufactured in its Riverwest factory; the Costantinis relocated their company to the Riverwest neighborhood in 1986; an item from La Lune’s rustic collection.

Creative outlet

La Lune Collection began as a side project for Mario and Cathy after the pair graduated from Marquette University in 1977. A biology major, Mario had intended to return to his native Argentina for medical school until he was summoned for military service. Choosing instead to remain in the U.S., Mario turned to interior design while he waited to be admitted to medical school stateside.

"We were both 23 years old and thought it would be fun to start an interior design firm," recalls Mario.

Cathy, who had been a French major, suggested the firm’s name, which means "the moon."

La Lune landed its first furniture commission in 1980, when a Chicago-based restaurant in the market for "Southern rustic" furniture contacted the firm. After researching the style at the library, Mario created a handful of designs.

"When we first started, we thought, ‘We like this style, but is the rest of the world going to like it?’" says Mario.

Today, La Lune offers more than 600 items in its collection, from seating to tables to beds to outdoor furniture. Most pieces in the collection, which are made by hand using a process that preserves the bark, sell for $500 to $5,000.

And every piece of La Lune furniture is made at the firm’s Riverwest workshop.

"Nothing is outsourced," says Mario. "We teach our employees how to construct the furniture. Even the sewing is done here."

Rough edges

La Lune moved from its original Wisconsin Avenue showroom to its Riverwest building at 930 E. Burleigh St. in 1986. Despite the area’s high crime rate, the location appealed to the Costantinis, who had moved to Milwaukee’s East Side a year earlier.

"We liked being close to both work and home," says Cathy. "It’s only a five-minute commute."

Mario recalls people’s reaction when they moved to Riverwest.

"They told me and Cathy we were crazy for moving to the area," he says. "It was a pretty tough neighborhood in 1986."

But the Cream City brick buildings, which had formerly housed a construction firm, were the perfect set-up for La Lune’s office and workshop. So rather than be dissuaded, the Costantinis set out to help clean up their adopted neighborhood. In 1989, Mario partnered with a group of local residents, business owners and police officers to open the Holton Youth Center (now the Holton Youth and Family Center) as a community haven for area youth.

"It took us five years to get rid of gangs and drugs," says Mario, who continues to serve as chair of the center’s board.

A more common sight today is parents pushing strollers and children on bikes. Problem bars have closed, and local businesses are starting to move in.

Avid philanthropists

In 2009, the Costantinis leased a former warehouse to the Florentine Opera. The space now serves as the permanent home for the opera’s costume and wig shops and rehearsal studio. The relationship is ideal for Mario and Cathy, who are devoted opera fans. In fact, Mario was instrumental in launching the Danceworks Mad Hot Ballroom program, which serves Milwaukee Public Schools.

Volunteering comes naturally for Mario and Cathy, whose philanthropy has extended beyond community revitalization over the years to the Milwaukee arts scene. Cathy has worked extensively with First Stage Children’s Theater and the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, helping organizations coordinate their signature fundraisers.

"I originally got involved with First Stage because our oldest daughter had an interest in acting," says Cathy, who served on the First Stage board for several years.

Factory direct

Despite La Lune’s stellar reputation for creating distinctive handcrafted furniture, the Costantinis admit their business took a hit during the Great Recession a few years back.

"We had five challenging years," says Mario. "Two things that hurt us were the recession and e-commerce."

Before the recession, La Lune primarily sold its furniture through design centers that catered to high-end interior designers. But when the recession hit, many design centers around the country closed.

Undettered, Mario and Cathy refocused their selling strategy, offering clients the option to place orders directly through their online store. Both La Lune’s product catalog and website are composed of beautifully hand-rendered pencil drawings created by the firm’s on-staff artist.

Now, fully recovered from the recession, La Lune is encountering the opposite problem. Demand is so high, the Costantinis have had to do the unthinkable and turn down major projects.

"Now orders are coming in all at once," says Mario. "We’ve had to say no because we can’t deliver."

All of La Lune’s furniture is made to order, with lead times averaging between eight weeks for small orders to 12 weeks for larger requests.

Although La Lune sells its furniture around the country, the firm seems to have found a niche market in Rocky Mountain states like Colorado, Wyoming and Montana.

"Our furniture fits in well there," says Cathy. "The style is a good fit for vacation homes." m

 












 


This story ran in the October 2015 issue of: