Imagine you're a 17th century carpintero (woodworker)
living in New Mexico. You are most likely of Spanish or Pueblo
Indian descent, and your time is divided between building simple
and practical furniture and fending off warring Navajos, Comanches,
Apaches and Utes. You have in your tool arsenal an axe, an adze,
a pit saw, a handsaw, a plane, a chisel, an auger, a knife,
a grooving plane and a compass. If you're lucky, your buddy
in the next pueblo might have a pole lathe.
Your skills were taught to you by Franciscan friars who imparted
furniture-making techniques that are rooted in medieval Spanish
and Moorish traditions.
Both Hispanic and Native-American styles influence your work,
but you are bound by the tenets of the carpenters' guild, which
was established in Mexico City in 1568, to uphold specific requirements
in style, design and proportion. And in keeping with the tradition
of European guilds, you preserve the practice of the craft within
Because the only wood available in abundance is ponderosa pine,
a wood that tends to split, and because you are limited by simple
tools, the baroque style currently in fashion in Europe is out
of your reach. So, you ornament your furniture with simple patterns
and representative symbols and hope that the pretentious ensembladors
(joiners and cabinetmakers who make more complex and inlaid
pieces of furniture) will be impressed.
might embellish a caja (chest) or trastero (armoire)
with a repetitive bullet motif. Varying the lengths of the rows
makes it more dynamic. Notching the uprights with a sawtooth
pattern adds a new dimension, and carved rosettes elevate the
piece to another level. Other elements in your decorative canon
include pomegranates (symbolizing fertility), lions (representing
courage), scallop patterns, shells (indicating pilgrimage) and
books underscore New Mexico's isolation from outsiders while
under Spanish and Mexican rule from 1600 to the first half of
the 19th century. Because of this, furniture styles remained
primarily unaltered. Although, with the influx of eastern Anglo-Americans,
who introduced new tools, new artists and new materials, the
traditional New Mexican furniture style experienced sweeping
changes in the second half of the 19th century.
However, in the early part of the 20th century, upper-class
Anglo-Americans' interest in historic preservation and fostering
folk crafts revived the traditional style and helped launch
a new one known as Spanish Colonial Revival furniture.
Today, craftsmen continue to include 17th century chip- and
gouge-carved elements in their own unique take on this style.
And the good news is, you still only need a few simple tools
to create them.