A hand-hewn bench with knots along the grain. A rustic chest with hand-carved rosettes. A pine cupboard with tin panels. Understated, beautiful pieces of hand-crafted furniture play an important role in the region’s history and remain a vibrant part of the Southwest’s craft landscape. Today, even with modern furniture-making technology, these simple, rustic styles persist, deeply ingrained in the spirit of the Southwest.
The story of hand-crafted chairs, tables, trasteros, cajas, and other now-familiar furnishings in the region begins with the Colonial period, when Spanish settlers moved north along the Rio Grande to establish communities in what is now New Mexico. These early colonists were concerned first with survival in the harsh new land, and as a result, they valued function above all. These early pieces are simple, with blocklike forms and restrained carved decoration. As the communities became established, furniture craftsmen, as well as other craftspeople, organized themselves into specialized guilds, much like their ancestors from Spain, where the medieval guild system of trades was well entrenched in the society.
A Venerable History
Before the 19th century, these carpinteros made do with a limited supply of materials at their disposal. The region’s junipers and great ponderosa pines are brittle and tend to crack along the grain. Therefore, artisans stuck to simple, straight lines, toning down the more curvilinear Baroque decoration that characterized furniture in Spain and Mexico in the 1600s and 1700s. Originally, furniture makers used basic woodworking tools, like the saw, the adz, and the chisel to craft simple benches, chests, chairs, and tables. Local metalsmiths—themselves limited in materials and tools—crafted modest hinges and locks to finish off these rustic designs. Carving decorative motifs in low relief across the surface, furniture artisans began to forge a characteristic Southwestern style that owed much to its Spanish Colonial past yet began to stand on its own as a distinct tradition.
The earliest interiors from colonial New Mexico shared much in common with those of Mexico and Spain during the same era. These understated domestic spaces relied on a few important pieces of furniture for storing linens and other household implements. People normally pushed these large, chunky chests, boxes, benches, cupboards, armchairs, and side tables against the wall, leaving a sparse open space in the center. Many of these furnishings were prized family possessions and were passed from generation to generation. One of the most important pieces, a carved chest called a caja, made up part of women’s dowries.
By the late 1800s, the railroad, the industrial revolution, and Anglo settlers brought furniture makers wider material choices, like milled lumber, as well as new tools such as the jigsaw, which made it possible to carve more ornate decoration. Some furniture craftsmen experimented by incorporating Federal and even Victorian styles into their works, making for a fascinating mix of Hispanic and Anglo traditions and resulting in unique furniture that could only have been crafted in the multicultural Southwest. By that time, however, a distinctive style of Southwestern furniture had already taken hold, one that continues to resist changes in fashion even today.
Nevertheless, Spanish styles have made a lasting impression on Southwestern hand-crafted furniture. Sixteenth-century Spanish motifs such as swags, birds, shells, fruits, and plants still appear on these pieces. Ultimately this decorative vocabulary owes its tradition to the Old World, yet Southwestern craftsmen continue to produce more rustic, understated versions of the more ornate European pieces.
Today a small number of traditional furniture makers carry on this tradition of hand-crafted Southwestern furniture. Although no longer operating in guilds, most traditional furniture-making enterprises across the Southwest remain family affairs. Parents pass the tradition to their children and grandchildren, perpetuating the techniques and the spirit of these old works.
Before You Buy
If you’re in the market for traditional handmade Southwestern furniture, it pays to look closely and ask many questions. Whenever possible, buy directly from the maker, either in his or her shop or at one of the region’s excellent craft markets. Quality, handmade pieces are still made with dovetail and mortise-and-tenon joinery and either left natural or lightly coated with a transparent stain to show off the inherent beauty of the wood. For the most authentic furniture, stick to characteristic pieces—a cupboard, caja, armchair, or side table—crafted from local pine or juniper.
The Southwest is a shopper’s extravaganza. Bedazzled by the vast choices, many visitors don’t realize that there are important differences between the locally produced furniture and Mexican imports that fill local shops and design showcases. Both Mexican and New Mexican artisans craft beautiful, high-quality works, but the traditions are distinct. Confusingly, these works sometimes look similar and are even exhibited alongside one another.
If you’re not sure, it’s helpful to spend some time in one of the region’s fine museums to look firsthand at New Mexican furniture from the Colonial period and later periods. Museums with good collections of handmade New Mexican furniture include the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos (1504 Millicent Rogers Road, 505/758-2462, millicentrogers.org); the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art in Santa Fe (750 Camino Lejo, 505/982-2226, spanishcolonial.org); and, down the street, the Museum of International Folk Art (706 Camino Lejo, 505/476-1200, moifa.org).
Where to Buy
Once you’ve trained your eye, you’ll be better prepared to scour the shops for an authentic Southwestern treasure. Furniture making requires space and is a relatively messy craft. It is not always possible to watch these artisans work, as their studios are tucked away from the more slickly merchandised shopping zones of Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos, Tucson, and Phoenix. Whether you buy an antique or contemporary piece of furniture, you should always buy from a reputable dealer, someone with a regional or national reputation who guarantees authenticity in writing and offers a clear return policy. Ideally, you also want to buy from someone who will take the time to educate you about the techniques and history and answer your questions.
One of the best opportunities to appreciate—and buy—authentic handmade Southwestern furniture is the Spanish Market in Santa Fe (held in July and December, 505/982-2226, spanishmarket.org), which hosts a handful of excellent furniture makers on its roster of craftspeople. The Spanish Market is a juried exhibition, which means that the artisans and their works have all been approved by a panel of art experts, and you can rest assured that you’re buying a quality, authentic piece of traditional furniture. Take advantage of this rare opportunity to talk with furniture craftspeople face to face about their work.
How Much to Pay
Several factors can influence the price of a handmade piece of furniture, and you should always examine it carefully before buying. Is the furniture maker known? Is the design traditional or contemporary? Did the artisan use traditional techniques? If you’re buying an antique, what is its origin and state of preservation? If you’re buying a particularly expensive or rare piece, an art appraiser certified by the American Society of Appraisers (appraisers.org) or the International Society of Appraisers (isa-appraisers.org) can help guide you on what to pay for a specific piece of furniture.
Prices for a typical piece of furniture made by a living furniture maker can start as low as a few hundred dollars for a small accent piece, but prices climb quickly for antique or custom works. You can expect to pay thousands of dollars for traditional benches and chests made prior to 1950. Collectors compete vigorously for quality pieces from the Colonial period, many of which fetch up to five figures at auction. Many of the region’s furniture makers jump at the chance to design custom pieces, which is a sure way to bring a distinctive and authentic Southwestern accent to your home.
Click here to read this article at Su Casa Magazine.
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