La Lune: The Art of Building ‘Rustic’ Furniture

by Kevin Flaherty

When I met Mario Costantini, a kinetic interior designer, he was directing workers in Spanish in front of his furniture-making establishment. Costantini, 48, brought me inside, where an airy showroom displays some of La Lune’s furniture. The showroom, with pleasant terra cotta tiles and an abundance of natural light, opens up into assorted offices, design studios, and the factory. He brightly introduced me to his staff as the “New York Times reporter” and proceeded to give me the full tour through his 20,000-square-foot design center and factory. The atmosphere inside is bright, with natural light available even in most factory areas. Most work areas are wired for speakers, and music fills the factory floor. The warm smell of sawdust pervades the air. Costantini came to Milwaukee from his native Argentina in the 1970’s to study pre-med at Marquette University. He planned on returning home after graduation but received a draft notice from the Argentinean army right before his return and decided to stay in Milwaukee. Instead, Costantini opened an interior design firm with his wife, Catherine, in 1978. Their original store was on Wisconsin Avenue right next to the Pfister Hotel; later they moved their shop to the Third Ward before settling in Riverwest in 1986. Although the furniture is considered “rustic” — think of chairs you may find in a resort lodge — they are clearly well made despite their primitive appearance and natural components. The hand-craftsmanship requires wood to be bent, dried, fastened together with customized joints, and finished by hand. Bark can be painted assorted colors: wood bark painted white and sanded down looks nearly identical to White Birch. One can easily imagine the glamour set curling up in La Lune chairs before a roaring fire in a Jackson Hole ski chalet, listening to Sibelius and sipping hot chocolate. The amount of handcrafting means La Lune’s merchandise isn’t cheap: a custom poplar headboard might run $3,000 or $4,000 for the end retail customer. The company sells through architects and designers. Approximately a third of La Lune’s business comes from commercial establishments like restaurants, with the balance sold to residential users. Its furniture can be found in hotels across the country and locally at Potawatomi Casino restaurants and at the newly opened Alterra Coffee on Lincoln Memorial Drive. Ralph Lauren’s Colorado home recently featured in Architectural Digest sports La Lune furniture, and actor Eddie Murphy purchased a custom-designed cabinet for one of his residences. Most of the furniture is made from poplar or willow brush, which are often considered nuisance trees and are generally not sought after as work materials. Costantini’s own employees harvest most of the wood themselves. Once harvested and cut, the wood is sorted by straightness and diameter. The sorting is essential for assembling well-balanced furniture. Bark is left on wood for furniture meant for interiors; on furniture meant for the outdoors the bark is peeled. Standard molds are used to bend strips of wood in consistent angles so they can be used together for rockers and as accent pieces on other furniture. The firm offers more than 600 designs of seating, cabinets, tables, beds, armoires, and other items. Even with a large selection of standard designs, the company still finds it customizes as much as half of its furniture to cater to the exacting tastes of the high-end rustic furniture market. La Lune Collection, located at 930 E. Burleigh Street, employs 20 to 30 people at any given time. The firm may be reached at 263-5300. Their website is Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 11 – December 2002