SPECIAL TO THE MID-COUNTY MEMO
Castellano Custom Furniture is known to be synonymous with family, craftsmanship and community. Located on busy thoroughfare Northeast Halsey Street in the Gateway District, the family business is run by three generations of Castellano men and women. They are dedicated to keeping family traditions strong, building a superior product and staying active in the celebration of Portland’s Italian culture by organizing and planning the annual Festa Italiana in downtown Portland.
For decades, Castellano’s has been handcrafting custom seating for wholesale and retail markets, as well as for designers from the San Francisco Bay area all the way to Alaska. Their products include sofas, chairs, couches and accessories from quality materials, using old-world techniques that have been brought forward into the 21st century. They’re proud of their sustainable practices, which utilize Northwest hardwoods along with recycled metal springs and locally sourced foam products, including batting material made from recycled drink bottles. All manufacturing waste is either reused or recycled.
The furniture making factory and showroom employ 30 people and occupy two buildings on Northeast 107th Avenue, where they’ve been since 1993. However, they could use even more space. “We need more room,” General Manager Joe Castellano said recently. With no pun intended he adds, “we’re bursting at the seams,” A few years ago, they almost moved the entire operation to Airport Way, but that fell through, but he’s still looking. “We could take both buildings next door and it still wouldn’t be enough room,” he added.
The craft of custom furniture-making worked its way into the family when 21-year-old Stefano Castellano took a chance to trade in a life of farming in his hometown of Casamassima (in the province of Puglia in southern Italy), for making furniture at the B.P. John Furniture Company in Portland, Oregon. He started by painting faux wood finishes on a conveyer line. “I didn’t know one word of English,” he says. After two years, he began work for Leonetti’s Furniture and remained there for the next six years, learning all he possibly could.
Carl Pagnano, manager of Leonetti’s, spoke Italian and took Stefano aside, speaking Italian with him and saying he wanted him to learn “everything here.” While at the time Stefano didn’t know what Pagnano had in mind, in 1962 he was offered a job at his manager’s own new furniture factory. It was called Tempo Furniture, and it was a huge success. Located in North Portland, Tempo Furniture’s sales boomed in the flourishing economy, and within half a year, the factory had hired close to 100 employees. Stefano worked there for 24 years, eventually as upholstery manager. His son, Joe, also worked at the factory during holidays and summers. Stefano bought the equipment and trucks when Tempo Furniture closed and opened Castellano Furniture in 1983; it had become time to place his family name on the quality furnishings he was handcrafting.
However, the group of buildings on Northeast Halsey Street is not where the Castellano story started. If it hadn’t been for a determined young ancestor, Michele Castellano, this family story would never have been recorded. Born close to the 1890s on December 25 and christened Natale Michele Castellano, Michele grew up in Casamassima. Farming in southern Italy was a struggle, and his father and uncle had both worked in the United States on and off, finding relief and promise there. In his teens, Michele had dreams of sailing to America.
In 1912, Michele sailed from Naples aboard the Ancona, destined for Philadelphia several weeks later. He took on the name Michael and served in WWI and WWII, retiring in 1949 with the rank of master sergeant. While he was stationed at Fort Worden in Port Townsend, Washington, he met his wife, Laura Donofrio.
From time to time, Michele would send a postcard to the family in Italy, but he did not visit. In the meantime, his parents continued with their labors and welcomed another son. He grew up and had his own son, who was christened Stefano. Michele decided to visit Italy when his nephew Stefano was 16. It would change Stefano’s life forever.
Joe Castellano provides some perspective on the visit: “That’s when he met my grandfather—his brother—and my dad for the first time. He told me many years later that when he saw my dad working like a dog [in Casamassima], he realized he had to bring him to the United States. That’s when he started the ball rolling to bring the whole family over here.”
Stefano’s parents came to the United States in 1955. “My dad said, ‘I better go see before you guys come over what’s going on over there,’” says Stefano. He and his sisters sailed to join them a year later, and a younger brother joined up with them after only a few months.
Stefano willingly admits he did not know what to expect. “We landed in New York, and a guy came and bought us lunch and afterward took us to a train station. He did not tell us it would take three days to get to Oregon, and we didn’t take any food on the train. When we arrived, my mother asked us if we were hungry, and we said, ‘Yeah, we were starving.’”
Stefano met his wife, Teresa Rebagliati, at Washington High School’s night school, where they were both enrolled in English language classes. Teresa emigrated from nearby Genoa in northern Italy and arrived in New York City in September 1955. She took the same three-day train trip route to Oregon that Stefano had taken. She had expected Portland would be a bigger city and was almost disappointed with it, but she was ready for adventure. She turned her attention to learning English and spending time with Stefano. They married in 1957.
Joe was their first child, and when he was five in 1963, the family visited Italy, thinking it might be another adventure to move back. Their trip lasted for three months, and life in the United States had made a lasting impression. They returned to Portland, where Teresa had also started to work at Tempo Furniture. She had gotten into the seamstress business earlier while working at White Stag, and during her time at Tempo, when the store and shop were growing, she learned the upholstery industry. When Stefano started up Castellano Furniture in 1983, she joined the workforce as the only upholstery sewer the business had. “Everything sewing” was her domain. In 1966, Stefano and Teresa built a new house in Argay Terrace. Cathy, their daughter, had been born a few years earlier, and Joe was in third grade.
In 1992, Stefano decided he would like to retire, and he sold the company. Castellano Furniture had originally handcrafted furnishings for wholesale buyers. The current set of buildings on Northeast Halsey Street house a retail outlet, started when Stefano came out of retirement a year later. Today, the business is three-pronged, being involved in retail, designer and wholesale sales.
Teresa and Stefano remain involved in the business. They both arrive at work every day, ready to fulfill the array of responsibilities that may overflow from the day-to-day operations. Teresa notes, “I don’t do too much now, and I view my work as a hobby.” She makes coffee, cookies and lunches for the workers. Stefano is president of the corporation and spends his time in the factory, constantly training the employees there.
Joe remembers working with his father when he was growing up. Stefano had a well-arranged shop in the basement of the family home, and he would do re-upholstery work on the side. “All my life I grew up tearing chairs apart, tearing sofas apart,” Joe says. “I worked at the factory all the way through college.”
Likewise, Cathy has memories of the shop in the basement. “I would go to sleep at night with furniture being made in the basement, the noise of staple guns,” Cathy recalls. She also worked at the factory while she attended college.
The furniture business didn’t start out to be a family legacy. After graduating from Jesuit High School, Joe graduated from Lewis and Clark College in 1980 in the middle of the recession and couldn’t find a job anywhere. He graduated with a double major in foreign languages and business. “I was going to do international business, you know, big grandiose ideas. It didn’t work out,” he laughs, shrugging.
Joe is now vice president of the corporation and chief of operations. He acts as manager of the store and is responsible for the general work of running the business.
With an accounting degree from the University of Portland, Cathy is the financial controller of the family business. She oversees its financial operations and shares responsibility for its economic and financial performance.
She recalls the store opening in 1983, when she graduated from St. Mary’s Academy. Her part-time hours while she attended college changed to full-time after graduating. She then left her job in 1992 but returned in 1998. “The company was growing, and having had my first child, it allowed me some flexibility,” she says. She recalls Joe carrying around her children at work in a BabyBjörn. “Both girls still remember that,” she adds.
Joe’s son, Robert, is vice president of operations and is charged with making technological upgrades to the production process. After graduating from Jesuit High School and attending Montana State University and Portland State University, he became involved in the family business. Robert also has memories of the business from childhood, especially the annual Christmas lunches, which involved family and employees alike.
His infusion of technology has paid off. “We used to use cardboard patterns for cutting upholstery. Now that’s digitized. We retrained employees. It’s streamlined production, we’re on time and it’s raised sales as well,” Robert says. “All the TLC into technology and the human interaction has worked.”
The first technical machine was installed in 2014. Robert calls it the first piece of the puzzle. He admits there were bumpy roads at the beginning, but once the results were promising, the work became more efficient and modernized.
Robert is also in charge of Castellano’s wholesale business. He rents a large box truck for sales trips and drives to furniture stores from Alaska to California to display products. He is invested in putting his own stamp on the business, building its foundation and growing the company and keeping up with available technology.
The Castellano family is engaged in family traditions and community. Both generations of children have attended either St. Therese School in the neighborhood or St. Charles Grade School and then moved on to Jesuit High School or St. Mary’s Academy. While their children were attending St. Therese School and Jesuit High School, Joe and Cathy were active volunteers at the children’s respective schools.
Many of their family celebrations center around family traditions from the old country. Joe recalls Sunday dinners growing up: “When we went to my grandparents, we would have Sunday dinner and then watch the Ed Sullivan show.”
Today, Robert and his generation bring along friends to family gatherings. They love the food and never have to be asked more than once if they want to come. Teresa has committed family recipes to memory, having learned cooking from her mother, including authentic sauces, lasagna, spaghetti, gnocchi and focaccia. Family may try to replicate her dishes, but they can’t. According to Joe, any holiday is an excuse for his mother to cook.
Starting in 1991, the Castellano family became active in the yearly Festa Italiana, held in August in downtown Portland at Pioneer Courthouse Square. It is a three-day festival of Italian culture, including music, dance, marionettes, a pizza toss and food vendors. Joe was one of the founding members of the Festa Italiana Association, and he continues to serve as its president. Remembering the planning and hard work of the festival’s first year, he says, “It’s near and dear to my heart. After I’m gone, I would hope that the Festa is still going, that guys like Robert would continue the Italian traditions in our family, his family, my mom’s family. That’s what I hope.”
Additionally, both Stefano and Joe belong to Club Paesano, an Italian American club house in the Cedarville Park neighborhood of Gresham. There are spaghetti feeds, live music and Christmas parties every year.
Representing the youngest generation, Robert thinks about the legacy he will inherit. “In my head, I have a list of things I want to do and places I want to go, but more than those, I want to keep what my family has built going, whether it’s the work or the Festa.” For Robert, he feels he has a stronger bond with his family because of some of the challenges of working with them. “However,” he says, “it doesn’t matter, because in the end it is only building family up.” Joe and Stefano both believe they are passing something significant on to Robert.
This year in spring, members of the three generations of Castellanos will travel to Italy to visit Teresa’s hometown of Varazze. They will visit family and travel throughout the country. Handcrafted furniture will no doubt be part of the conversations, but so will community-building and family. It’s all part of the Castellano tradition.
Castellano Custom Furniture is at 10708 N.E. Halsey St. The phone number is 503-256-4880 and castellanofurniture.com is their website address.