The Maderas Collective: Bringing Sustainable Furniture to the Global Stage

This story appears in “Global Generation” Volume 01

It may be a cliché but travel really does open the mind up to a world of new possibilities. No one knows this better than Dave Grossman who, on a chance surf trip to Nicaragua in 2010, instantly felt a deep connection to the country and its raw beauty, leading him to question the direction his corporate life was taking him in. His experiences on that trip and the people that he met ultimately prompted Dave to throw in the towel to his corporate career in favour of pursuing a more creatively driven existence in Nicaragua. Electrify Mag talks to Dave, CEO and co-founder of the Maderas Village boutique eco-resort (profiled in our online magazine in December 2015) and the Maderas Collective, a sustainable, craft-forward furniture brand that celebrates the skills of local Nicaraguan artisans, about how the vision for the collective was born.

Juggling a fast-paced, corporate career in law and finance in New York, Dave travelled to Nicaragua feeling disconnected and overstressed. The days he spent on the coast catching waves and connecting with other like-minded people with similar passions triggered the realisation that he yearned for ‘something deeper with real personal involvement’ in his life, he says. This was a notion shared by other surfers on that trip, including Matt ‘Dickie’ Dickenson, another young professional looking for an alternative, more meaningful existence. Dreams of escape turned into concrete plans and before long, the seed of an idea had blossomed into the construction of the Maderas Village boutique hotel and then, for Dave, the establishment of the ethical furniture manufacturing facility that is the Maderas Collective.

It was the experience in co-founding the Maderas Village, an eco-retreat designed for people looking for inspiration to fuel their creative pursuits, that naturally paved the way for the development of the collective. Faced with the challenge of building the entire lodge from scratch – from constructing the physical space, bringing in the electricity cabling, to designing and furnishing the interiors – Dave and the other founding partners he’d also met on that surf trip became intimately acquainted with the talented artisans of Nicaragua who they worked very closely with to bring the vision of the Maderas Village to life. After seeing first-hand the expert craftsmanship of the local artisans and recognising the demand for such high-quality furniture on a global scale, Dave and Dickie’s second business enterprise was born.

Based in Mangua, the capital of Nicaragua, Dave’s vision for the Maderas Collective was founded on the same tenants as his first project: to live well. The design concept behind their handcrafted, custom furniture lines are ‘inspired by the capabilities and talents of the Nicaraguan craftsmanship and their heritage, juxtaposed with a contemporary approach to design,’ Dave says. The Maderas Collective celebrates the unique approach to woodworking of the local Nicaraguan artisans distinguished by intricate inlay work, beautiful weavings and local materials. By incorporating these traditions into their products, the Maderas Collective honors the Nicaraguan legacy in furniture making.

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Priding itself on being a sustainably minded enterprise on every level, the Maderas Collective places sustainable initiatives at the forefront of operations. Dave admits that they have learned over the years that ‘true sustainability can be a relative concept depending upon all the factors you can control’. From the very beginning, the collective’s operations were administered almost militantly with very strict controls on the sourcing of materials. Initially, only naturally fallen timber was permitted to be used in the construction of both the Maderas Village property and also the collective’s products. Although these were laudable intentions, Dave concedes that it was not financially sustainable to continue the business in this way. Today, materials are sourced through plantation wood or through well-managed forests, with the collective always replanting in proportion to the extraction rate.

In addition to the careful management of resources, the Maderas Collective’s main sustainability tenet according to Dave is ‘the value-add transformation of the raw materials to quality furniture,’ which he says is ‘the best legacy we can bestow on a country with such incredible natural resources’. In the process of transforming the raw materials into the premium, custom products for sale to international clients, there is at least a six-fold value increase in comparison to if the timber logs were sold as harvested.

The economic benefit to Nicaragua and, more specifically, to the lives of the local artisans working for the Maderas Collective is tangible; something that is at the very core of the collective’s mission. Dave reminds us that unemployment is not as big of a problem in Nicaragua as ‘underemployment’ is, in the sense that a lot of local people are working jobs below their skill level or capability. Through taking on local carpenters, metalworkers, welders and upholsters among other trades, the Maderas Collective focuses on an intensive training program that develops their skills to a level where they can experience professional growth, wider future opportunities and financial security. Dave also refers to the collective’s ‘Common Cents’ micro-finance fund in place for every employee to access. In this progressive social scheme, microloans of up to $500 are available to each employee and their family; a ‘safety net’ of assistance for life’s little surprises. Dave notes that in return, the Maderas Collective has ‘one of the highest employee retention rates in the country and an extremely positive professional culture’.

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Despite the impressive successes in the collective’s first few years, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Dealing with lightening strikes, explosions and electrical mishaps including all too frequent electrocutions in the early days are just a couple of the ‘endless dramatic moments’ that come with establishing a business in a developing country. Thankfully, those days are long gone and are recounted with the view that it has all been part of the adventure. Dave admits that ‘the learning curve has been steep’ and he attributes a big part of finding their way to the reliable people who have tirelessly assisted in navigating the complex landscape of establishing a company in a foreign country. Supported by an international team comprised of a mix of local and international experts has been invaluable in the realisation of the project.

With a number of exciting developments on the horizon, 2016 is looking to be the biggest year yet for the Maderas Collective. With the upcoming opening of a new 20,000 square foot workshop, Dave’s ‘dream shop’ in Mangua on the horizon and plans to hire another 50 employees over 2016, the Maderas Collective aims to ‘show the world the level of production that can be achieved in Nicaragua’. Already the world is taking notice of the expert craftsmanship of the premium-quality products produced by the collective and a range of restaurants, retail spaces, offices and residences feature custom-made pieces from the collective’s portfolio. For Dave, some of the most memorable projects he’s seen through so far have been the build-out of VICE Media’s new headquarters in Brookyln, NY together with Uhuru Design. The Maderas Collective have also recently completed a truly unique custom fit out of  Las Vegas loft with hOmE Design. After custom producing a huge range of furniture and fixtures in Nicaragua before transporting everything to Las Vegas for installation, Dave regards the finalisation of the project to ‘one of the proudest moments’ he’s had yet.

Keep your eyes peeled for the release of the signature Maderas Collection range, due to be revealed at the ICFF, North America’s premier showcase for contemporary design, in New York City in May 2016.

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