Mid-century modern furniture hobby brings success and profits
Four years ago, Henry and Lesa Jara found themselves out of work.
Henry Jara, 54, had been laid off from his sales management job around the same time that his wife, a senior customer service representative managing high-profile accounts, left her company after it closed its California offices and moved to Atlanta.
So the Garden Grove couple decided to take a leap of faith. They took a weekend hobby of collecting and building mid-century modern furniture and turned it into Casara Modern, a furniture business that now counts celebrities as its clients and is in the midst of nearly doubling its Huntington Beach manufacturing facility to meet the newfound demand.
“I never looked back,” said Henry Jara, sitting next to his wife of nearly 30 years on one of his sleek alder wood sofas on display at Urbana Americana in Long Beach. “Vintage inspired me to do this.”
The couple’s passion for the mid-century modern style began about 15 years when their daughter, Alexandra Tillehkooh, began collecting pieces to furnish her bedroom.
The family scoured garage and estate sales in search of furniture featuring clean geometric lines and natural wood materials characteristic of the era.
They collected so many pieces that they decided to sell many of the items at the Long Beach Antique Market. They quickly realized the greater business potential of dealing in mid-century modern furniture.
“People were buying it off of our truck,” Tillehkooh said. “They were coming in early in the morning with their flashlights looking into our truck. We didn’t get a chance to unload it.”
They made a few thousand dollars within the first hour, Henry Jara said.
“I knew there was something there,” he said.
FROM BUYING TO BUILDING
But as they ramped up their vintage inventory, the Jaras discovered they were having a difficult time finding original pieces to sell.
So Henry Jara decided to try his hand at building furniture influenced by the era.
He possessed advanced woodshop skills and in the 1990s had run a business out of his garage making gardening benches.
In creating the mid-century modern-style pieces, he looked to the era’s designers, Milo Baughman and Paul McCobb, for inspiration.
“It was an easy transition, but I did a lot of research because I wanted to make sure they were built to last a long time,” Henry Jara said.
His daughter didn’t doubt her father’s ability.
“My dad’s always been my go-to guy when there’s something wrong with the house,” Tillehkooh said. “My dad can do anything.”
Lesa Jara admitted that she a little skeptical about the business.
“He always knew, but I was a little bit more hesitant,” she said. “I was used to having a regular paycheck, so it took me a while to warm up to it.”
One of the first things he made, a classic daybed sofa, is now the company’s best seller.
“We just kept getting orders,” said Lesa Jara, 58, adding that the clientele has evolved from young homeowners wanting to decorate their loft spaces to a diverse group of buyers looking to outfit their offices and historic homes. “I’m really amazed because we don’t do any advertising. People just find us.”
Actor Tim Robbins purchased one of their first sofas. An event company commissioned Casara Modern to furnish a party hosted by surfwear company Quiksilver. Their pieces have been featured on television.
Josh Agle, also known as the artist Shag, found Casara Modern on Etsy while looking for furniture to fill a home he had purchased in Palm Springs. The house, which was designed by mid-century modern architect Donald Wexler, was done in a Polynesian mid-century modern style with tropical carvings, a stone interior and grasscloth wallpaper.
Agle and Henry Jara collaborated on a custom sectional for the living room, creating a corner piece with two sofas and a table.
“I knew that Henry could build what I had in mind, and he did,” Agle said. “In this day and age of IKEA and things like that, the craftsmanship on this is really top-notch.”
Henry, who has spent the last few years perfecting his craft, recalled dealers in San Francisco gravitating toward his pieces, thinking they were vintage.
“You could see the glow in their eyes,” he said with glee.
Lesa Jara, who handles the marketing and financial side of the business, said Casara Modern is two years ahead of its five-year financial plan. Their Huntington Beach facility, which houses a staff of six, will include a showroom once the expansion is completed in early December. They also plan to expand their line of products to include accessories such as era-inspired planters and wall magazine racks.
“It shows that we put our passion into what we do,” Lesa Jara said. “We put ourselves into the product.”