The chair known throughout Central America as a Belize chair is in essence a wooden folding chair. Two sets of slender beams, one forming the seat and the other forming the back, interlock at the hinge of the seat. Some look at the long swoop of the chair and see something like half of a wooden hammock. When she first encountered it in a rural region of El Salvador, Emily Prendergast saw opportunity.
“I remember thinking, ‘That chair right there. That’s amazing.’ I had never seen anything like it,” she says.
It was the summer of 2011, and Emily was touring the Salvadoran department (similar to a county) of Sonsonate with her brother Brian, who was working in the country at a US-based power company. The handmade wares they kept finding at roadside stations captivated them, as did the work ethic of the artisans producing them.
“You drive around the countryside and … it’s an extremely rural area, with a fair amount of poverty and people just kind of living off the basics,” Brian says. “They’re all pretty entrepreneurial, because that’s how they make their living—trying to do or make different things.”
Brian and Emily were feeling enterprising themselves. The two had floated the idea of starting a business together years earlier, and now the time seemed right. Brian, a fluent Spanish speaker with an MBA in international business, had grown to love living in El Salvador, and Emily had recently quit her job at Crate & Barrel to find more fulfilling work.
They agreed that the chair, as well as other items they’d seen being sold roadside in Sonsonate, would be well received by US buyers. So they approached the Gonzalez family who owned the shop, bought a handful of chairs, and promised they would be back.
Conception of Maya Mueble
It wasn't until the following summer that the two of them made a return trip to Sonsonate. In the intervening year they had developed the concept for their business, which by then they were calling Maya Mueble: an online storefront devoted to the furniture and home goods being made by hand in El Salvador. The first thing they did was go straight back to that roadside shop.
“I’m sure that after a year had gone by they didn’t expect us to show up on their doorstep,” says Emily. But the Gonzalezes were thrilled to see the Prendergasts again. “They literally blessed each of us for like, five minutes each,” Emily says.
The Maya Mueble concept quickly expanded during this trip, as the siblings traveled into San Sebastian, an area known for textile production. Here, they met the Portillos, a family that lives and works on a compound full of looms they’ve built themselves. Emily and Brian bought enough of the Portillos’ textiles to fill several garbage bags, later just barely making it back through customs because of suitcases that were pushing the 50-pound limit.
Once back in the United States, they rifled through everything they had brought back and began choosing which items they wanted to commission more of for the website.
Speaking Different Languages
It wasn't long before the difficulties of running an international venture such as theirs became apparent. For instance, though Brian is fluent in Spanish, the two were still stymied by communication barriers when developing product designs with the Gonzalez and Portillo families.
“We use so many different [design] terms here,” Emily says. “You say, ‘Make it look organic,’ and they’re like, ‘What?’ Then you realize that’s a ridiculous thing to ask someone who lives on the side of a hill.” She recalls another occasion where they suggested creating wooden flatware, an idea that didn't connect with the Gonzalezes. They eat with their hands.
The availability of natural resources also complicates production at times, as does the month-long span it takes for pieces to ship from El Salvador to Chicago (things first go by boat to San Francisco, then by rail to Illinois). Another issue at first: setting quality expectations. “They were used to selling things just to make ends meet,” Brian says, and not always engrossed in making things perfect. But the craftsmanship was there, so the adjustments were mostly minor ones; Emily recalled requests such as changing capped bolts on the chairs to pegs that would be flush with the surface.
The Maya Mueble Collection
Communication issues aside, the Prendergasts have been able to curate a remarkable collection of furniture and home decor, each piece of which is made intricately by hand (and sometimes also by foot: click here to see a video of one of the Portillos looming a blanket in a process Emily likened to playing an organ).
Of course, the Comoda chair—their take on the Belize chair that so captivated Emily—is their signature piece, even serving as the Maya Mueble logo. The Gonzalezes build the chair from teak, a wood Emily adores for its imperfections, which give each chair its own unique size and grain.
Textiles are the bulk of the collection, and range from the colorful San Sebastian throws (woven blankets that come in geometric color patterns) to the minimalist Santa Ana tea towels (swathes of white linen crossed by a few thin lines of red, green, and blue).
Considering the effort that’s gone into these pieces, it’s not surprising that Emily has become rather attached to them. She was sad about selling their original table runner to a man in New York. “It’s such a bittersweet thing when the original pieces are selling, because I have such a love for them. It’s like, ‘Goodbye, friend!'” She frowns, but only for a moment. “But there will be more,” she says with a smile.
After only a year in business, Maya Mueble’s presence has grown significantly, with the company opening booths at the gallerias in Andersonville and Evanston and making appearances at events such as Square Roots and the Chicago Flea Market. By next year, Emily hopes to be manning a brick-and-mortar shop in Ravenswood or elsewhere on the North Side.
The founders are working to expand their supply base as well. A women’s co-op in Guatemala is currently working on rugs from Emily’s own designs, and the siblings hope to follow some potential leads in Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia. They have also started talking with woodworkers who live just down the road from the Gonzalezes about making teak tabletops from kiln-dried wood.
The reason for expanding in this way is not just to diversify the company’s inventory, but also to make the company a driver of sustainable economic growth. Brian says he hopes the business can “get a lot of different people involved that can make a living off of it … and help some people grow organically, as opposed to just giving them money.”
If the business continues to succeed, it will be because Emily and Brian are so comfortable deferring to each other’s strengths. “She’s the one who’s done most of the work and developed the creative end of it,” Brian says about his sister. “I’m not good at any of the stuff that she does.”
Meanwhile Brian gets credit for his analytical mind and business sense, not to mention his love for Latin American culture, which drives the company. “[Brian] was really passionate about starting this business,” Emily says. “Without him, this would be nothing.”