New Mexico Furniture Through Time

As you look at today's furniture, think about our rich history.


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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 remote
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 goat leg.

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
to the
Museum of International Folk Art remote
Santa Fe

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 Press 1987.

Visit the Museum of New Mexico remote

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque - Volume 14

Related Pages

Glossary of Hispanic Folk Art Terms article
Marco Oviedo, Carver article
The National Hispanic Cultural Center of NM article
Patriciño Barela, Carver article
The Pomegranate in New Spain article

Santos of New Mexico; A 400 Year Tradition article
Three Hispanic New Mexico Metal Traditions article
A Tradition of Making Straw Into Gold article
A Tradition of Making Straw Into Gold article
Straw Art in New Mexico article

Collector’s Resources

Santa Fe

Joan Caballero Appraisals PO Box 822, Santa Fe, NM | 505-982-8148
Anthony E Martinez rem PO Box 28912, Santa Fe, NM | 505-424-3989
Museum of International Folk Art | 505-476-1145
The Owings Gallery | 505-982-6244
New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors | 505-476-5200


Millicent Rogers Museum | 575-758-2462


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