In Marketplace

La Lune co-owner Mario Costantini and his furry companions. (PHOTO: Whitney Teska)

In Marketplace

Most of La Lune's furniture is made from poplar. (PHOTO: Whitney Teska)

In Marketplace

The Costantinis bought their building in 1986. (PHOTO: Whitney Teska)

In Marketplace

Alterra features many of La Lune's chairs in their cafes. (PHOTO: Whitney Teska)

La Lune pulls big business to Brew City

While every business in the country jumps on the "green" bandwagon, La Lune Collection has crafted eco-friendly furniture for more than two decades in the heart of Riverwest.

Mario Costantini, who owns La Lune with his wife, Cathy, says his small but successful business is, arguably, one of the greenest companies in the country.

"Wood is either the best or the worst material (for the environment), depending on what it is and where you get it. We make most of our furniture from poplar. It's junk to most people, but a treasure to us," he says.

Ninety-five percent of La Lune's poplar comes from Northern Wisconsin. Poplar grows very quickly, so it's considered a renewable resource, but because it has thin trunks that cannot be split into two-by-fours, it's deemed useless by most builders.

On all of the furniture, La Lune uses a non-toxic, non-polluting finish that's made in Madison.

Local and national customers covet La Lune's upscale rustic furniture. Ralph Lauren was one of the company's first clients, and since then, Eddie Murphy, Oprah Winfrey, Gloria Estefan, Barbara Streisand and John McCain purchased pieces from the collection.

"We received a phone call from someone (who works for) Gloria Estefan because Gloria wanted us to know how much she loves our furniture," says Costantini.

The Disney Corporation is also a La Lune client.

Many Milwaukee establishments feature La Lune pieces, including Potawatomi Bingo Casino, the Urban Ecology Center and numerous Alterra cafes.

Recently, Costantini provided benches for the new Alterra on Humboldt, and placed one, just for fun, at the bus stop across the street from the café. Later, he received a call from the mayor's office, asking if the bench belonged to him.

Costantini wasn't sure what the reaction would be since he didn't seek approval before putting the bench on public property. Luckily, Mayor Tom Barrett loved it.

La Lune offers more than 600 designs of seating, cabinets, tables, beds and accessories. Costantini created the designs, and all of the furniture is manufactured on site by a staff of carpenters who work in five different departments.

One-third of its orders come from commercial accounts and two-thirds come from individuals. Most of its furniture is sold through interior designers, and all of the orders are filled upon request.

"It takes about eight to ten weeks for us to fill an order, and everything goes out on time," he says.

Costantini says La Lune's product vision is similar to Harley-Davidson's because both companies have an aesthetic that nods to the past as well as the future.

"Many companies are futuristic in their design, but we approach it differently," says Costantini. "We have a natural theme, which allows our customers to bring a little bit of nature into their homes."

A La Lune chair runs between $350 and $800, a cabinet costs between $2,000 and $5,000 and a bed ranges from $1,000 to $4,000.

"Our work is very labor intensive," says Costantini. "Buying a piece of our furniture is like going to a custom tailor rather than buying a suit off the rack."

La Lune does not advertise, nor do they have a retail store. Retail, however, is something Costantini says might happen in the future.

"We're growing very slowly -- by choice -- and we continue to expand," he says.

Costantini moved to Milwaukee from Argentina in 1964. His father originally moved to New York, then relocated to Milwaukee where he became an upholsterer.

Mario and Cathy, who have been married for 27 years and raised three children, graduated from Marquette University in the '70s. Cathy received a degree in French -- "La Lune" means "the moon" in French -- and Mario has a pre-med degree.

After graduating, they opened their business in a space next to The Pfister hotel. Then, they moved to the Third Ward, and finally, to Riverwest.

It was a risky move because, at the time, gangs ran the neighborhood. However, the couple took a gamble -- despite skepticism from many people in their lives – and bought the large, cream city brick building.

Since moving the business to the Riverwest neighborhood, Mario and Cathy committed a lot of time to the community. They own another building on Holton and Burleigh that houses the Holton Street Youth Center, where Mario continues to serve on the board. He is also on the board for Danceworks.

Cathy is a board member for the Florentine Opera, the Milwaukee Chamber Theater and Pearls for Teen Girls.

"The work we do in the city is our luxury," says Costantini.


Talkbacks

hasensmith | Sept. 14, 2008 at 7:20 p.m. (report)

A true diamond in the rough. A classic story of vision and gumption. As a Riverwest resident, I couldn't be more proud.

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