Inside Tucson Business

Colorful details found in furniture produced for mfa/eronga inc. by its manufacturing operation in Mexico mirror a vivid history of the company.

The story begins in Mexico and continues there today. Locally, however, the story includes a 7,800 square-foot building at 1605 W. Grant Road that was converted from a wholesale warehouse to primarily a retail operation at the end of last summer. Behind the retail showroom, a portion of the building still is used for shipping, receiving, overruns, inventory and pieces that need repair.

Steve Rosenthal, who owns the company with his wife Maureen, is focusing on developing the business in Tucson and Arizona.

"We're concentrating on this and making this a place of distinction," said Rosenthal, a Tucson native.

Shipments of furniture come from the company's manufacturing operation in Erongaricuaro, which is located in Michoacan, a rural, but craft-rich state of Mexico. The Rosenthals live nearby in a villa on Lake Patzcuaro.

Steeped in tradition

The furniture and decorative wood items, which range in price from $20 to $6,000, are made using 18 century joining techniques, pre-Hispanic carving and decorating motifs, as well as modified modern techniques.

The finishing technique involves alder, poplar or medium density fiber board coated with an epoxy sealer, then a base coat of colored polyurethane, a water-soluble color finish, a lacquer coating, more water soluble color, more lacquer, a glaze, more lacquer and then polishing.

Each time the piece is coated with lacquer, it needs to be finely sanded. After the last coat of lacquer, the piece is cured for 24 hours and then polished again.

"So it's very labor intensive," Rosenthal said. His wife oversees production in Mexico. "She's 60 percent of the organization," he said.

Many of the furniture pieces are one-of-a-kind. Multiple pieces may look the same at first glance, but actually may be special made, one painted with pears and another with oranges. Furniture pieces include armoires, dining sets, game tables, chairs, stools and bedframes.

Employing 108 people today, the manufacturing operation began as a government-run school and workshop led by the Rosenthals for six years starting in 1981. Maureen, a summa cum laude graduate of UCLA at the time and Steve, an assistant editor in a Hollywood commercials production company, originally went to Mexico for six months to work on film scripts, but stayed on as they grew to enjoy the surrounding area and also grew familiar with the local crafts market.

After six years, the workshops they had been invited to run were converted by the government into social solidarity societies, a legal entity that was developed in the 1970s as an answer to failing cooperatives' business structures.

In 1988, the enterprise became private as four separate entities were launched to represent a separate aspect of teaching, designing, producing and marketing companies vis-a-vis ownership and tax base. The four entities became irrelevant after Mexico's Fiscal Reform laws, and the operation became a cooperatively owned production company, with the social solidarity society owning 25 percent of the assets.

Rosenthal said 70 percent of the company's employees belong to the social solidarity society and are part owners of the operation in Erongaricuaro and mfa/eronga inc. in Tucson.

Rosenthal said that during the last 20 years, some employees have painted on a 40-hour per week basis. "Their skills are phenomenal," he said.

He said a lot of research goes into developing designs for the furniture. For example, some tile designs are based on 16th century designs. "It's what we think a key part of our market niche is," he said.

Balancing inventory

For now, he is trying to get a sense of inventory control for the Tucson store. "We're trying to get a better sense of inventory management for a region," he said. "We make too many products."

In the past, product was available to interior designers through design centers nationwide, including Chicago, San Francisco and Florida, where tastes varied by region. Rosenthal said mfa/ eronga does not consign as much with design centers as it has in the past because it now sells mostly direct to interior designers.

Barbara Schaefer, a local interior designer with Belden & Co., said she bought from mfa/eronga a long time ago and has been buying "quite a bit" in the last four months since she learned the local operation sells direct. "I just love their stuff," she said. "It's fresh. It's fun. It makes my clients so happy."

Schaefer said some of the furniture pieces have "wonderful stories" in them.

The company also does contract work, making such items as African-themed chairs for Disney World. Another contract involved making Monopoly furniture for Hasbro. Contract work is about 10 percent of mfa/eronga's business. "That became a special niche for us," Rosenthal said.

Rosenthal said the Tucson facility will be the only mfa/eronga retail location for now. "We probably need two retail locations in Tucson," he said. But the company wants to continue to use its resources to provide furniture for outlets in Scottsdale. "Our primary source of representation in Scottsdale is Dos Cabezas," Rosenthal said.

Pat Black, who now runs the store with her son Steve, said her mother, the late Newey DeMille, was the Rosenthal's first retail customer, commissioning the Rosenthals to do some pieces for her even before they ran the workshops in Mexico. "In those early years, they bought already carved pieces on the market," Black said. The Rosenthals painted the pieces, she said, but her mother suggested that they do the carving as well.