Can an American-led furniture company be a force for change in Nicaragua?
By Nate Storey
Photos by Stefan Wigand
May 4, 2016
The Maderas Collective furniture factory has almost burned down again. Two of its partners, Dave Grossman and Jon Beer, are standing at the edge of a bluff in Managua, Nicaragua, looking at the smoldering wake of a fire that stopped 10 feet from their wood-filled warehouse. It’s the third year in a row that a blaze has flirted with the cement-and-zinc headquarters during dry season, the result of locals trying to smoke iguanas out of the flora with small fires. The duo seems oddly calm considering six years of hustle and hard work were nearly torched into the night’s sky. But that’s the rhythm of Nicaragua, a place that runs on upheaval and disorder, and requires a skillful ability to adapt to circumstances beyond your control in order to survive. “I fell in love with the chaos when I first came down here eight years ago,” says Beer, a surly transplant with a grating drawl who hails from a blue-collar section of Cambridge, England. “We bring order to that chaos,” adds Grossman, a native New Yorker who arrived in 2010 for a long-range biking trip through Central America and ended up putting down roots. “But you need to be a masochist—you need to love it.”
Speaking of love, Collective’s furniture is getting a lot of it these days, particularly from New York’s design community. Both new guard and celebrated firms have commissioned them for hospitality concepts, residential projects, and private offices. When Vice Media opened its new 60,000-square-foot Brooklyn mothership in a converted Williamsburg industrial building last year, locally based Uhuru was tapped to design the space, with Collective taking on the production. It’s a relationship that’s blossomed even more since. “They’ve become an extension of our family,” says Uhuru co-founder Jason Horvath, who’s also taken on the role of Collective’s creative director for its first line, Maderas Signature, which comes out this fall.
At first, Horvath was weary of collaborating with what could be considered competition, but it was nothing a little surf diplomacy couldn’t assuage. “Our board meetings consist of taking our surf boards out on the waves,” he says. “The partnership has been an amazing asset for both brands.”
Another Brooklyn studio, Home, recently prototyped with Collective a metal-frame chair called Stiletto, named for its heel-shaped feet, for chef Curtis Stone’s soon-to-debut restaurant Gwen in L.A. (The two have collaborated on numerous New York culinary ventures, including Sisters, Tørst, and Ramona.) Manhattan’s Parts and Labor tasked them to fashion 146 desks for the coming Midtown coworking space Blender, while Roman and Williams hired them to make pieces for the just-unveiled Ace Hotel New Orleans. Not bad for a neophyte furniture company, whose growth velocity falls somewhere on the spectrum between whiplash and high-speed train. “We’ve focused the last 18 months on being a really cool production house and creating great things,” Grossman says. “Our design partners want to come to paradise to prototype, surf, and hang with like-minded people. We’re building furniture because we enjoy it.”
Therein lies the magic dust. Collective pairs beautifully crafted woodwork with a free-spirited lifestyle. The business is an outcrop of Maderas Village, a surf camp, yoga retreat, and music studio outside of the coastal fishing town San Juan del Sur that has become an asylum for the creative class. (Its visitor’s log reads like a VIP Coachella party, with everyone from the musicians Tove Lo and The Knocks, to Denver weed entrepreneurs, to Hollywood screenwriters.) Using sustainably sourced Nicaraguan timber, Grossman hand built the 20 thatched-roof bungalows with co-founder and Torontonian Matt Dickinson on a verdurous hill overlooking a silky Pacific Ocean surf break in 2011—evading the corporate world to live out an Endless Summer fantasy. They took an altruistic approach, ensuring the property was designed with renewable materials; it was a thorny process that landed them in the conference of Kalashnikov-wielding cliques in the northern jungle, near the Caribbean side, and at deceitful plantations where they discovered clear cutting, a destructive form of deforestation in which trees aren’t replenished. (The jarring aftermath can be seen in barren countries like Haiti.)
Along the way, they learned the ropes of sourcing responsibly, and opportunity came blowing through like the offshore winds that form the perfect waves outside their hotel: Why not start an environmentally-minded furniture company? “You have such raw nature here, so being protective of it is the right thing to do. Yes, there’s a lot of value, but we don’t want to take advantage of that because we get to see things most people don’t get to see. Leave it the way you found it,” says Grossman, before doing a little jiu-jitsu with some terminology from his old life. “It’s adventure capitalism.”
Collective has allied with the few plantations that harvest trees in an eco-conscious way. They also source downed hurricane trees and wood that’s atypical to furniture making. “We have a giant lemonade stand,” says Beer, alluding to their adaptive use of unconventional materials, an ethos the guys call found design. For instance, they bought a large amount of ironwood, supposedly a bad investment in the carpentry industry—now it’s the core of stools that sit in Vice’s office. Tigerwood, long considered a trash tree, is used in various chair models. Rebar, the mesh of steel wires often found sticking out of crumbling or half-finished buildings in this part of the world, is deployed in table bases and bar stools. “When I get designs produced, I really want to know who’s making it and what the conditions are like,” says Evan Haslegrave, who runs Home with his brother. “I don’t mean this in a spaced-out hippie way. A project can have all the right things—the chef, the space—but it all depends on the nucleus. Does it have a good energy? If you’re getting things that are coming from a bad situation, it’s hard not to receive that negative energy.”
To get a sense of the farming culture, I headed to the countryside and Nagarote with Grossman and Enrique Sanchez, 47, the son of a former general in the northern Contra army. After the civil war ended in 1990, Sanchez returned to his beloved Nicaragua from Miami to reclaim his land. Now he’s pairing with Grossman to start a sustainable sea-cucumber farm off the country’s Pearl Key islands. “That’s the enemy of Nicaragua,” he says, pointing to a brick farm that harvests the area’s clay soil. “I love my country. It’s not hard to plant trees. These guys are doing something positive. They’ve created jobs and don’t rape the land. I wish we had a million like them.” We take a dirt-covered side road to a cluster of hot springs sprinkled around a river at the foot of the Momotombo Volcano. We’re ensconced by golden grassland, an attribute of dry season. “Dave! Dave!” Sanchez shrieks. “You should see the ducks here during rainy season!” He has the enthusiasm of a kid who’s visiting the zoo for the first time. The region’s natural beauty elicits that kind of emotion.
By most measures, Nicaragua is on the upswing, though it still remains the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Tourism is growing thanks to projects like Maderas Village and Mukul, a massive $250 million resort an hour up the Emerald Coast. New roads and highways are cropping up in the capital. Investors are salivating at the thought of the country becoming the next Costa Rica. But just as the hordes descended upon that rainforest landscape for a slice of pura vida without much benefit to the local population, Collective is wary about exploiting the rich topography and impoverished people like so many multinational corporations before them. “In the past, parasitic furniture companies have come in to make as big a profit with as little investment as possible. They take advantage of the local makers instead of building something with them,” says Beer. “We’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re giving them the basics: dignity, even just saying thank you.” They also pay salaries that are 25 percent or more above the market rate, while providing unheard-of benefits like small interest-free loans and yearly across-the-board raises. But Beer, who taught carpentry to underprivileged kids back in Cambridge, might be most proud of the way they’ve been able to take the workers’ raw skills and hone them in a dynamic way by nourishing critical thinking. “They’re so used to seeing things through a short-term lens because that’s how they survive,” Beer says. “Fostering team building and accountability, getting them to buy in—they’re thriving in this atmosphere now because someone took the time to explain how to do it right.” Case in point: Most local craftsmen have never been taught how to properly dry wood, or the need to leave a little room in the furniture for when it changes climates and expands. A telling stat of the inherent shortsightedness comes from 2011, when Nicaragua exported more than $13 million of tropical hardwood, and imported more than $12 million of wooden furniture, according to Indexmundi.
Next, Beer and Grossman take me to a small artisan town named Masaya, a 30-minute drive from the Managua, where their employees live. On the edge of a lagoon, with Volcán Masaya rising in the distance, humble cinderblock structures fan out from a central square with a crafts market. Everywhere you turn there’s a workshop that specializes in any industry that can fit in your kitchen: carpentry, leathery, ceramics, and more. We maneuver through the narrow cobblestoned streets, stopping in a woodworker’s shop before heading to a humble house that belongs to the head finisher, a local named Henry. He tells me about growing up learning carpentry from his dad. He’s always looked at his trade as a way to put food on the table and not much else. He talks about the work and how it was difficult and stressful at first, scrapping a myopic way of thinking and learning how to distill a complex project into a blueprint that envisions the end product. Now he’s flourishing, say Grossman and Beer, who are perpetually wowed by his talent. “We consistently ask him to do the impossible, and he always has the same response: ‘No problem,’” Beer says. The pride Henry takes in the work, which is reinforced by the pictures he sees of his products stylishly placed in hotels and restaurants in the U.S., adds an intrinsic value that goes beyond money. Now his only work-related worry is how he’s going to get all the neighborhood artisans a job. Everyone wants to join the team at Maderas Collective.
This month, the company will relocate from its semi-shoddy Managua factory, where a kitten-eating boa constrictor lives, to a shiny new 20,000 square-foot space in Masatepe, a lush, high-elevation area surrounded by coffee plantations, 1,800 feet above sea level. It’s a game-changer for the brand and its employees, who will get to work in a cutting-edge facility for the first time in their lives. (Collective is also expanding its workforce from 25 to 75, bringing many of Henry’s neighbors onboard.) One thing that won’t change: the antique equipment used to produce the furniture such as a 1942 leather machine that once made truck tops and parachute canopies during World War II. “Modern machines don’t work here,” Beer says. “The older ones are Nicaragua-proof, like a Land Rover. Computers can’t handle all the dirt, and it’s difficult to get parts. These can’t break.”