New Mexico Furniture Through Time
The blend of Native American, Hispano and Anglo-American traditions endows New Mexico with a unique cultural
flavor that permeates all aspects of this southwestern society. The region's cultural syncretism can be savored in the traditional cuisine,
observed among the goods sold in the Santa Fe plaza and experienced when one interacts with everyday utilitarian objects such as furniture.
Furniture's functional importance often overshadows its aesthetic beauty. However, decoration and furnishings give insight into the social
dynamics and aesthetic preferences of a community; the New Mexican furniture style is a reflection of the Native American, Hispano and
Anglo-American sensibilities of this region.
Collection of the
Museum of International Folk Art
in Santa Fe
The strongest cultural influence visible in the New Mexican furniture style is that of Spain. Immigrant
Spaniards brought the guild system to the New World during the 16th century and established the first carpenter's guild in Mexico City
in 1568. At this time, woodworkers and furniture artists in the region now known as New Mexico appropriated many aspects of the Spanish
guild system. One such adaptation was the customary practice of passing down trade secrets concerning the proportion, design and structure
of furniture from father to son in order to maintain a strong family tradition. This custom is still widely practiced today and can be
witnessed among the artists of all ages who participate in Santa Fe's Spanish Market each year at the end of July.
As is the case with most utilitarian objects made before the latter half of the 20th century, attribution and historical data concerning
early New Mexican furniture is scarce. Up until the mid-19th century, most New Mexican furniture was constructed out of native woods such
as ponderosa pine and juniper, and basic hand-tools such as the saw, adz, chisel and auger were used in the building process. Increasing
trade with Mexico coupled with the opening of the Santa Fe Trail in 1821 introduced new tools and techniques into the region.
From New Mexican Furniture
By Lonn Taylor
and Dessa Bokides
Photo by Mary Peck
During the colonial era, the most common furniture item in a Hispanic New Mexican
home was the caja, or chest. The traditional six-plank chest was held together with mortise-and-tenon or dovetail joinery and reinforced
with hide glue. Standard chests were generally adorned with chip-carved geometric designs or low relief figural carvings. The chest in
this illustration dates back to the late 18th or early 19th century and is thought to be a dowry chest.
This chest illustrates some of the traditional Spanish motifs that were appropriated into the New Mexican furniture style
during the colonial era and many of these designs are still visible in the work of contemporary Hispanic New Mexican furniture artists
today. Rampant lions denoting courage, pomegranates symbolic of fertility, rosettes reminiscent of Spain's Moorish influence, and scallop
patterns, are only a handful of the motifs comprising the traditional woodcarver's decorative canon. Other popular motifs, which are also
mimicked in Hispanic-style embroideries and weavings are the meandering pattern, bird-like forms and scallop shells associated with the
pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Many of the adaptations developed to cope with the scarcity of resources in such a northern part
of the Spanish colony are precisely what helped characterize the furniture of New Mexico.
The modest locks and hinges on colonial New Mexican furniture for example, contrast with the dominant
and heavy ironware seen in colonial Mexican chests, and attest to the difficulty of acquiring large quantities of metal in this area. Similarly,
the brittle nature of the native juniper and ponderosa pine woods prevented furniture makers in the north from appropriating the baroque
carving style associated with 18th century colonial furniture from Mexico and South America.
Given the need for furniture and the relative shortage of Spanish immigrants to this northern region during the early
stages of colonial development in the 16th century, many Spanish friars passed on their woodworking skills and traditions to Pueblo Indians.
The chair in this illustration alludes to some of the cultural adaptations that might have occurred as a result of the Pueblo artists'
creative influence. This 19th century chair was constructed according to the colonial system of proportional measurement and is held together
by mortise-and-tenon joints. The decorative motifs, however, are representative of imagery found in the pottery, weaving and other traditional
arts of Pueblo Indians. The stepped design along the back of this chair resembles the traditional Pueblo depiction of the heavens and the
rain, and the gouge carvings along the chair posts are reminiscent of the Pueblo cornstalk motif.
The increasing number of Anglo-American settlers in the southwest during the
first part of the 19th century also influenced New Mexican furniture design. Like other art revival movements that took place in the Appalachian
region and among Native American peoples, New Mexico's Spanish colonial revival movement was more about the economic needs of the depression
era and the nostalgia and aesthetic tastes of Anglo-American visitors than about preserving a 400 year Hispanic tradition. Nevertheless,
many innovative furniture forms developed out of this social and artistic phenomenon. One such hybrid example is the small table illustrated
here. The form of the table is characteristically Anglo-American and animal figures are often visible in both Anglo-American and Hispanic
revival style furniture, but in this case, Spanish style conch-like shells or half-rosette motifs are incorporated into the design of each
Although the Spaniards were responsible for introducing a particular combination of style, design and proportion into
the furniture making tradition of this desert region, New Mexican furniture today shows traces of varying historical influences.
New Mexican furniture has developed into its own recognizable style as a result of the available native resources, and the unique Hispano, Native American and Anglo-American amalgam of culture in this region. Furniture, like any other component of everyday life, is not stagnant and introduces yet another way to visually learn about the adaptive characteristics of society.
Gift of the
Historical Society of New Mexico
Museum of International Folk Art
Thanks to Feliza Medrano who based this article on information found in: Hispanic Furniture, an American Collection from the
Southwest by Sali Barnett Katz, Stamford: Architectural Book Publishing 1986; and New Mexican Furniture 1600-1940, The Origins,
Survival and Revival fo Furniture Making in the Hispanic Southwest by Lonn Taylor and Dessa Bokides, Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico
Visit the Museum of New Mexico
Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque - Volume 14
RESOURCE LISTS UPDATED WHEN VIEWED | ARTICLE CONTENT REVISED
October 14, 2009