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Seattle furniture maker strives to complete vision

KENT, Wash. - Statistically, three of four small businesses fail within the first five years of operation.

Ernie Apodaca's Northwest Native Designs wasn't one of them.

His specialty furniture business near Seattle is going gangbusters in its sixth year. Perhaps one of the reasons for its success - aside from a lot of hard work - is that the concept for the furniture came to Apodaca in a vision.

"I had a vision of building this furniture and combining my talents with Native American artists," says Apodaca, a Blackfeet from Seattle. "I had this vision of creating different designs of different tribes, sharing the stories ... and bringing out the uniqueness of our arts and the uniqueness of all the tribes."

In his one-man upholstery shop, Apodaca turns out unique leather sofas, armchairs, recliners, wing chairs and love seats. Not only is each piece handcrafted and built to last a life-time, each one is painted by hand or tooled by various artists to the buyer's specifications.

True to his vision, Apodaca has drawn to him Native artists from all over the United States. The first was West Coast Salish artist Roger Fernandes.

"When I told him of my vision, how I wanted to be able to make this successful ... and take this business to a reservation and teach kids this trade ... when I shared this with Roger, he said, 'When someone comes to you with a vision, you are to help them with the vision. ... Just bring the leather over.' And he did it for free."

Now, with business taking off and armchairs fetching between $2,300 to $4,300 and sofas as much as $5,500, Apodaca doesn't have to ask his artists to work for free anymore.

Odin Lonning of the Woosh-Ke-Taan clan of the Tlingit nation carves totems on wooden armrests. A recent sofa he worked on displays the legend of the raven and the eagle. The front of the arms are carved with human spirits and below them are an eagle and a raven, all with inlaid abalone eyes.

Wildlife artists Mark Lone Eagle Redfox and Carol Kalhagen paint animals, shields and symbols unique to individuals and tribes onto the leather in acrylics and oils. Lisa Sky Horse, one of the world's top leather workers, hand tools some of Apodaca's furniture as well.

Apodaca and his business partner and wife, Wendy, say it's all about giving their clients something unique. A recent client had Kalhagen paint a sofa with a wolf's head. But he sent a picture of himself and asked her to paint his eyes into the face of the wolf. The result? An intense piece of art, a comfortable piece of furniture and a wolf with turquoise blue eyes.

"You're definitely not going to find anything like this at Nordstrom's department store," says Wendy, laughing. "People love the concept of having a unique piece of furniture. And it's not just a piece of furniture that's upholstered. It's an idea, a vision they have of their own lives. ... They're looking for an emotion, not just a piece."

Casinos also are buying their furnishings. The Ojibwe Nation recently purchased a variety of sofas and chairs, each displaying a symbol from one of the nation's six clans.

To look at the business now, you wouldn't know that success didn't come fast or easily.

Initially as a one-man operation, Apodaca says he worked furiously, drove to furniture shows, spent a lot of money, exhibited and sold, sold, sold. Within four years he made it to the top of the furniture circuit and was accepted to exhibit at the Western Design Conference in Cody, Wyo.

But even pushing as hard as he could, working on the side doing regular upholstery work to help pay the bills, the business just didn't take off the way he wanted it to.

"I never could get into the record part," he admits. "I never could go to the bank and say, 'Look, I need working capital.'"

But when he met and married Wendy, a real estate agent, the business part of the business came together.

A natural organizer and promoter, Wendy got things running. She made sure contact calls were returned promptly rather than scribbled on pieces of paper and lost. She budgeted and planned. As a result, the business now has it's own truck, an advertising budget, a business plan in the works and lots more business.

She also has been instrumental in getting Apodaca's furniture line expanded to include ethnic woven and chenille fabrics.

"People now are not just buying a leather sofa or leather chair," she says. "They're buying an ensemble for their living room. It's really opened the business up."

With success at hand, Apodaca says he is looking for the rest of his vision to unfold.

The product of an alcoholic, abusive, urban Indian family, Apodaca had his run-in with the law as a teen-ager and ended up in a penitentiary for four years. After that he had an alcohol binge that nearly destroyed him. His vision came to him while drying out at an alcohol and drug rehab center in 1994.

Not surprisingly, the rest of his vision concerns Native youth and helping them grow up right, with skills, a trade and some self-esteem. He is looking for a reservation interested in having him relocate his business and train youths coming out of school - or rehab or prison - in the furniture-building and upholstery trade.

"This trade is an easy trade to learn," he says. "There are seamstress jobs, upholstery jobs, truck driving jobs, manager jobs. This could create a lot of jobs on reservation besides casino work.

"A lot of our kids need something besides the excitement of the casino as an alternative when they get out of a treatment center. I'd like to bring this forward. ... I know I can help. I have a lot to offer."

Apodaca has been approached by several reservations, but the situations, he says, just weren't right. But after all he's been through, that doesn't bother him. He has learned to have patience and to trust something other than just himself.

"The higher power, Grandfather, is going to bring it to me when the time is right."