Tips of the Trade
Early Southwest Furniture
Simple design is the hallmark of early Southwest furniture.
A mouse-eaten hole on this cabinet received a simple tin can repair.
Almost all early Southwestern furniture was made of pine.
Woodworkers sometimes incorporated Native American motifs in their furniture.
Bright house paints were often used on early Hispanic furniture.
In 1998, Sotheby's auctioned off one of the largest collections of early Hispanic New Mexican furniture, which included pieces that dated back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Leslie Keno, of Sotheby's American Furniture and Decorative Arts department, was closely involved with the sale, which his brother Leigh, also an appraiser, attended.
ANTIQUES ROADSHOW pays a visit to Casa San Ysidro, a historic rancho located in Corrales, to examine one of the country's best collections of early Hispanic furniture
"It was really interesting to watch the faces of traditional Queen Anne and Chippendale furniture collectors when they walked into the exhibition," Leigh says. "They were enthralled."
When ANTIQUES ROADSHOW stopped in to visit Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the summer of 2002, Leigh had another chance to examine the furniture made in what was then Spain's Northern Frontier, which included Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California. While in New Mexico Leigh stopped at Casa San Ysidro, a historic rancho located in Corrales, and examined one of the country's best collections of early Hispanic furniture. We asked Leigh, Leslie and some experts from the Albuquerque Museum to educate us about this furniture and to provide some guidelines for collecting. Here's what they told us.
When Spanish woodworkers first came to Mexico, they brought their guild system with them, providing a means through which skills and designs could be "taught from father to son and grandfather to grandson," explains Andrea Gillespie, the former associate curator of history at Casa San Ysidro.
"The carpinteros were working in a centuries-old tradition," Andrea explains. "It's called the 'mudejar' tradition. It's a synthesis of Spanish, Christian and Moorish design principles and motifs that create this feeling of formality and also spontaneity. The carpinteros internalized these rules and they played with them."
Leslie notes that those interested in collecting early Southwestern furniture should look for pieces that exhibit these pleasing proportions. "A collector should always ask, 'Is the design successful?'" Leslie says.
Why so simple?
Scarcity also shaped the style. Isolated Southwestern settlers didn't have access to the tools or hardwoods used by furniture makers in Boston or Philadelphia. Railroads did not reach the area until the late 19th century; the Santa Fe Trail, stretching from Santa Fe to Missouri, did not open until 1821. Thus early woodworkers had to rely on local ponderosa pine—not as hard as maple or oak common along the Eastern seaboard, yet harder than the other tree commonly found in the Southwest, cottonwood.
Tools were relatively scarce. "They used an axe, basically," says Andrea. These woodworkers also wielded chisels for chipping out designs, augers for drilling holes, and simple mallets for hammering pieces together. The tools were made locally or imported from Mexico or Spain, yet were expensive in what was a relatively poor region. Iron for tools and nails was extremely scarce and expensive. "Iron cost one dollar a pound in 1824 and the average income was three dollars a month," Andrea said. "So people made do."
Instead of relying on nails, carpinteros managed with pegged mortise and tenon joints, which actually made for much more durable construction. "Repairs were made by the people who were using the furniture," says Leslie. "They were not slick repairs done in furniture repair shops." Leigh saw a good example of this at Casa San Ysidro, where a mouse-eaten hole was repaired with the lid of a tin can.
Softwoods resulted in a simple decorative style. "Pine, unlike hardwood, tends to split on the grain," Andrea explains. "You can't get that baroque curvilinear feel that you get in hardwood. So they used chip carving."
Carpinteros used chisels to incise geometric shapes in the wood, as was often done in Moorish designs. Some carpinteros also incorporated Native American motifs. Andrea points to a chair made by a Cochiti woodworker along the Rio Grande River as an example of how Southwesterners reinterpreted Spanish designs. "You can see a corn motif, which is an American plant, and you think, 'Ah, Native American influence,'" Andrea said to Leigh during their tour. "If you go back to 16th century Spain you can look at the same type of chair and see the same type of carving, but you'll see wheat."
"Collectors should always look at the sophistication of the carving," Leslie notes. "And they should look at the surface. Is it the original surface or has it been redone?" Many pieces were painted with bright house paints, and the preservation of the original coat is preferred. "Having an original surface is as important here as it is are for 'high style' pieces," Leslie says.
Rare and expensive
Unfortunately, fans of early Southwestern furniture often have a hard time finding examples of furniture from the era, since relatively few were made in the sparsely populated region. Also, furniture was built more for use than for posterity, leading those who owned the furniture to often pilfer the parts of old or broken pieces to salvage wood for a new piece.
Larger pieces, and those that have strong examples of the chipped carving, tend to bring higher prices, Leslie notes. Many of the larger pieces sell for tens of thousands of dollars, as did a good number of larger quality pieces at Sotheby's 1998 auction. For those interested in spending less than $1,000, Leslie recommends smaller pieces, such as pine chairs, and decorative objects, such as sconces, small boxes, hanging shelves, or candle stands.
Leslie says those who are serious about Southwestern furniture should consider visiting the furniture dealers in Santa Fe. Adds Leslie: "It's very rare that these objects will come up for auction in some place like New York City."
To learn more about furniture, Leslie Keno recommends:
New Mexican Furniture, 1600-1940: The Origins, Survival, and Revival of Furniture Making in the Hispanic Southwest, by Taylor Lonn, Jonathan L. Fairbanks, and Dessa Bokides, 1987.
A Land So Remote, by Larry Frank, Skip Keith Miller, and David Skolkin, 2001.
Casa San Ysidro: The Gutiérrez-Minge House in Corrales, New Mexico
The Museum of Spanish Colonial Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico
More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Furniture category:
A Cabinet Full of Eggs? (Philadelphia, 2007)
Honestly Abe's Chairs? (Mobile, 2007)
A Match Made in Heaven (Or at Least New York) (Milwaukee, 2007)
Getting Your Furniture on ANTIQUES ROADSHOW (Providence, 2006)
Elk Antler ... and a Little Bit of Moose (Omaha, 2005)
A True Roux? (Reno, 2005)
Leave the Finish Alone
Pull Up a Chair
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.