Few cause-worthy design companies carry such chic, modern pieces as Maya Mueble. So you can imagine our delight upon learning that the brand’s Latin-American-made textiles and furniture formerly available online and at local pop-up markets will now live permanently in Lakeview (3754 N. Ashland Ave). Inside the storefront, which opens this weekend (Saturday, noon–6 p.m., and Sunday, noon–4 p.m.), customers will discover sculptural chairs and barstools, graphic wool blankets and rugs, plus one-of-a-kind market finds. We chatted with Emily Prendergast, who founded Maya Mueble with her brother Brian in 2011, about starting a small business and how every item purchased helps a family put food on the table.
In today’s vast marketplace of home goods brands, what makes Maya Mueble unique?
Maya Mueble focuses on curating a line of handcrafted furniture and textiles from Guatemala and El Salvador that you can’t find anywhere else. By working directly with the artisans, we’re able to create, experiment and ultimately deliver our products straight from artisans’ workshops to into the homes of our customers. Each product is handcrafted and one-of-a-kind, and to us, that’s really important and inspiring.
So when someone buys one of your chairs or rugs, for example, how are they directly benefiting families in Latin America?
There is no middle man between our artisans and Maya Mueble. Therefore, they receive all the earnings made for their small businesses while gaining an insight on different product design. Simply put, each purchase is adding work and income to our artisan families and lessening their burden of selling items by the roadside. For example, our Comoda chair, produced by the Gonzalez family, started as a small order of six chairs back in 2011 when we first met the family. Each year we have been able to increase our order with the Gonzalez family, even selling out of last year’s inventory. On our most recent trip to El Salvador, the Gonzalez’s showed us the beginnings of a new home - a dramatic improvement from their current home. It’s moments like this that reaffirm we are doing a good thing.
What are you drawn to when you’re looking for new items to bring home with you to sell?
I’m drawn to the unexpected. Latin America, especially Guatemala, is well known for colorful cotton textiles. So when I first saw the Momostenango wool blankets, with their minimal design and muted colors, I knew they were special. The same thing happened in El Salvador when our welder, Santiago, showed us the now-named Equis chair. It’s deceivingly comfortable for such a sculptural chair, which is something I truly never expected to come across during our travels.
How do you get the items home?
The logistical hurdles we’ve faced have been some of the crazier moments in the development of our business. We work with a broker and freight company to help facilitate the shipping of containers from El Salvador to Chicago. In Central America, we consolidate all items from Guatemala and various remote regions of El Salvador at our local partner’s location in Santa Ana.
Was it difficult to find a storefront, and what risks do you face?
There are obvious overhead risks involved when transitioning from an online e-commerce shop to opening a brick-and-mortar store. We kept those risks close to mind when setting a budget and choosing a neighborhood we felt comfortable with. There were many dead ends during the search but we ultimately found the perfect place that met all our requirements.
What is your hope for the future of Maya Mueble?
Our hope is to continue to offer new products, especially furniture items, and grow the business. In order to insure we do this with quality and consideration of the environment, we hope to build our own solar kiln, obtaining wood from suppliers with stringent environmental controls, and also plant trees to replace the wood we purchase. Down the road we also hope to work with artisans and cooperatives in other Latin American countries like Columbia and Bolivia.
What advice would you share with someone looking to start his/her own business?
Definitely go for it if it’s something you believe in and are passionate about, but plan smart because the unexpected will happen. And you may be very good at many things, but you are not an expert on all things. Ask for help; ask for input.