Last updated on June 10th, 2022 at 11:22 pm
La Lune Collection
930 E. Burleigh St., Milwaukee
INDUSTRY: Rustic furniture
EMPLOYEES: About 30
Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood looked a lot different in 1986, when Mario and Cathy Costantini decided to move their rustic furniture business there from the Third Ward.
The abandoned factory they moved into had broken windows; its cream city brick was black from smoke and street gangs caused problems in the area. Today, the Florentine Opera Co. practices and has its offices in the Costantinis’ building, Colectivo Coffee is just around the corner and La Lune Collection produces furniture that goes into high-end projects around the country.
“There were many places in the city that we discounted,” said Mario, La Lune co-founder and head designer. “Riverwest was on the fence. Did we know that we were going to be able to help restore Riverwest? We hoped we would do that, but it certainly was not a sure thing.”
The Costantinis were 23 when they started their business in 1978. Cathy, now La Lune’s business manager, was a French major at Marquette University and Mario planned to go to medical school in his native Argentina. The possibility of military service in his home country prompted him to consider going to U.S. medical schools.
As Mario prepared his applications, the couple decided to start an interior design business. They were able to rent space for a showroom next to The Pfister Hotel downtown and managed to convince a banker to give them a $50,000 line of credit.
“We didn’t have any money, we didn’t have a business plan, we didn’t have any background or anything like that,” Mario said.
The showroom location helped them find clients and before long, they were designing rustic themes for Chicago-area restaurants. As they started receiving calls from people asking where they could find the furniture, the couple decided to start making their own pieces. They quickly found a market for their product and attracted celebrity customers like Ralph Lauren, who still orders every few years.
La Lune’s catalog has grown from around a dozen pieces initially to 600. The company uses willow and poplar wood to make tables, chairs, cabinets and beds in a variety of finishes. The wood is nearly entirely sourced from within Wisconsin, but 95 percent of orders go outside the state. The look is especially popular in the second home market, mountain states, upstate New York, New England and the Carolinas.
It’s a narrow niche, but the Costantinis are fine with that.
“It’s this little sliver of the furniture world that we own,” Mario said.
“Sometimes rustic is more popular for a few years than others. We really don’t care about those fashion trends; we don’t pay attention to them – we are in our own niche and world,” he added. “We’re not chasing what’s in today. We’re about the past; we’re about making rustic furniture the way it was made for hundreds of years. We believe that there is always going to be a market for that.”
Saying that La Lune is making things the way it has been done for hundreds of years isn’t something to take lightly. Much of the equipment in the company’s 25,000-square-foot facility dates back to the early 1900s, but Mario said it is more than dependable.
“We philosophically tend to be very low-tech about everything that we do, because it works for us,” he said.
But La Lune is also operating in an increasingly global market, which adds to the challenge of doing business.
“We’re competing against people who manufacture furniture in China who earn a few bucks a day,” Mario said. “How do you find the niche? How do you find the place that works within that playing field?”
He said La Lune takes a cue from Harley-Davidson Inc. by embracing quality and the value of the brand.
“They’re not a commodity and we don’t want to be a commodity,” Mario said. “You get a Harley because it’s a Harley and it has that cache to it. We work on always being in the same frame of mind as they are. Somebody can be a little less expensive than us, (but) it’s not La Lune. It’s not our quality.”
La Lune has also found its willingness to do custom pieces helps protect it from overseas competition because designers won’t look to foreign competitors for one or two pieces. Today, roughly half of the business is custom.
“Most manufacturers don’t like to do custom. It’s hard to do custom well,” Mario said. “Over the years, we’ve gotten good at it.” Looking for more furniture stores? Visit sites like homeaccents2.com/dining-room/ for options.