The way Matt Castilleja started his business sounds like a fairytale.

In 2016, after working odd jobs to continue a four-year unpaid apprenticeship under master woodworker and custom furniture maker David Polivka, his mentor retired and bequeathed his operations—a vast 30,000-square-foot studio and thousands of dollars worth of equipment and materials—to Matt. He was just twenty-nine years old.

Since that glass slipper moment, Matt has grown fully into his role. He already had a background in architecture when he first began apprenticing with David. He studied at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and he had attended the Metropolitan Community College of Business and Technology to learn welding. When he first took over the studio, Matt inherited David’s client list and retained much of his mentor’s design influences.

“I saw the opportunity for doing something unique and interesting,” Matt says. “I knew it was going to take sacrifice, because it’s hard to do and it’s expensive, but I wanted the challenge.”

Gradually, he flexed more of his own creative muscles, cherry-picking inspiration from travel and experiences. On a trip to Italy, Matt became enamored with marble that was seemingly around every corner.

“They used it for everything from sidewalks to dog bowls, because they have access to it there,” he says, laughing. “I just loved it.” He reached out to Carthage Stoneworks, a Kansas City company with a ninety-year history in marble. It was the beginning of a beautiful partnership, and it gave Matt the means to carry out the designs that he’s become known for: items like his Suzi desk, an elegant piece with a solid maple wood top and a base formed out of the famous Roman travertine marble—marble that has been in fashion since the Roman Empire and was used in the Colosseum. The smooth, rounded edges are precision-shaped by hand. His creations are beyond function. They are as much art as they are furniture pieces.

That kind of work got Matt invited to show at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) in 2017 at the Javits Center in Manhattan, which showcases a curated selection of high-end furniture designers. This marked a turning point for the Kansas City native’s career.

The Plinth Dining Table is made out of solid, rift-sawn white oak, antique verte marble, and steel. Photo by Jenn Rodgers. 

“I had been dreaming about this show for nine years,” Matt says. He recalls one interaction at the fair that particularly stuck with him when he struck up a conversation with a businessman who stopped at his booth. “He asked where I was from, and when I told him, he took off his glasses and kind of stared at me, and he said, ‘This comes from Kansas City?’ ‘No, I’m from Kansas City, and this doesn’t come from Kansas City.’ ” That man later became Matt’s client.

Showing at ICFF was the validation he needed. It was acceptance among the most distinguished names in the industry, and a sign that he belonged on the world stage of cutting-edge furniture design.

Today, at thirty-three, Matt’s designs are the focal points in multimillion-dollar builds for clients on the coasts. The next phase of his business, he says, will be developing signature furniture lines.

“That means my role is changing” Matt says. “I’m starting to do more design work and business development rather than working in the shop.”

Matt has two employees, and these days, the bulk of his work is carried out in the office adjacent to his shop. All the evidence of a brain at work is laid out on a long table: a drafting station, liner pens, notebooks, blueprints, marble samples, L-squares, and other rulers of all shapes and sizes. Matt sighs. He’s grateful to be able to do what he loves, but the kind of work he’s become known for doesn’t always come easily.

“It would be great to say I take walks in nature and figure out what to do or go to the coffee shop and draw, but that’s not how it works,” he says, laughing. “The designs are asymmetrical, so it’s figuring out the engineering and logic behind it. I’m just trying to find the right balance.”