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Classic style in Santa Fe.


The "new" Southwestern look is one of the oldest American furniture styles around.

Let us leave behind, for a moment, the golden, nostalgic glow of High Point for the clear, radiant light of the American Southwest. Southwestern designers also look to the past for inspiration. But, in contrast to the 19th century Victorian influences seen at the October Market, furniture makers in New Mexico draw from more than four centuries of history.

According to Kingsley Hammett of the New Mexico Wood Products Assn., the state has a proud tradition of furniture making that began with the Spanish conquistadores. "Explorers moving north up the Rio Grande Valley carried along chairs, chests, cabinets and tables heavy with the influence of Old Spain," he said.

"As the original pieces of ornately-carved furniture wore out and disappeared, village carpinteros replaced them with local adaptations. The native versions were similar in construction, form and decoration, but with a frontier quality dictated by limited materials and crude tools."

That strong, simple "frontier quality" is what many of us regard as typically Southwestern: that distinctive, solid, rectangular look of chairs and benches; plank tabletops with square-cut edges; cowhide and Navaho blanket upholstery. Yes, it has a provincial nature. But by no means is furniture from New Mexico limited in design. Remarkable dynamics are at work there.

Cultural influences

New Mexico's furniture makers have developed their own individual styles, adapt their favorite native motifs for ornament, create custom finishes and details and work not only in pine, but also in alder, oak, cherry, walnut and mahogany. Their collections vary according to whether Spanish or native New Mexican influences dominate. Some craftsmen have opted for contemporary interpretations. Folk art pieces and avante garde art furniture are also part of the New Mexico scene.

Tony Searer of Southwest Spanish Craftsmen and Rob Dooling of Doolings of Santa Fe are both well-known, established furniture manufacturers. Fred Romero of Creative Woods and David E. C'De Baca are prize-winning artists/craftsmen whose stars are rising. All four are located in Santa Fe, and their common denominator is the production of handcrafted classical Southwestern furniture that they believe will last for generations.

"For over half a century, Southwest Spanish Craftsmen has custom designed and handcrafted pieces for clients across the country," Searer said. The company is noted for reproductions of 16th and 17th century Spanish and Early New Mexican furniture and meticulous reproductions of museum pieces.

"Our designs have been used in Santa Fe so long they are considered generic," Searer added. "We draw from historical Spanish Colonial and Provincial pieces, and early New Mexican Indian motifs, such as the Navajo blanket and Kachina pottery designs."

Searer's handsome Granada highboy with double doors attached by strap hinges features a typically-Spanish, hand-forged iron underbrace attached to the center of the base and to the leg stretchers. Another essentially Spanish piece is the trastero, a cupboard or armoire. Spanish Craftsmen can design one for you alone -- with copper panels incised in a Kachina pattern by artist Storm Townsend -- or you might prefer a Mimbres version with stylized animal carvings -- 1,000-year-old design motifs that seem as contemporary as tomorrow.

|Woodworking is the easy part'

Searer and his wife bought the company six years ago when the owner wanted to retire. Searer had once worked in the same cabinet shop designing and building exhibition cases for museums. He said he has since learned that, "Woodworking is the easy part, as most woodworkers know. It's running the business that is difficult. I do everything but woodworking now."

Southwest deals exclusively with the end user -- primarily and directly, Searer said. "Furniture is custom built the way the customer visualizes it and we find it is easier to deal with one client than with a second or third level interpretation. We have thousands of designs for customers to examine and respond to, which helps us to get a feel for what they really want." Any existing design can be revised, he said. Size, choice of wood, carving designs and finishes are all determined by the customer.

"What we sell is time," Searer said, "-- the time it takes to handcraft solid woods." Everything is extensively hand sanded and hand rubbed. A variety of finishes is available, including natural oiled walnut and cherry, and custom finishes at no additional cost. Top coats are satin lacquer. "The finish is what differentiates our furniture," Searer said. "It sets us apart."

Limited editions

Originally a New England cabinetmaker, Rob Dooling has been in Santa Fe for 15 years, designing and building in all areas of woodworking from privately-commissioned reproductions to large-scale commercial installations.

Limited editions from Doolings of Santa Fe include a reproduction of an early 1900s table carved by Jose Dolores Lopez of Cordova, whose work is known throughout New Mexico. Only four of the reproduction tables are offered each calendar year.

Dooling describes his designs as Southwestern County. "It is a tri-cultural look -- Indian, Spanish and Anglos. We were here long before the hype about Southwestern furniture started. And after the dust settles, and the junk clears from the market, we'll still be here. This is a basic, classic look that will endure," Dooling said.

"At Doolings, every piece is hand assembled, hand carved and hand finished. Doors and drawers are hand fitted. Every surface that is exposed to view is lightly distressed or |aged' using hand tools," he said. Edges are eased and slightly worn over, rather than machined. Surface checking is simulated as are other signs of wear and aging.

Doors, drawers and chairbacks from the collection can be ordered with bullet and bead, medallion or Navaho carvings, or as plain panels. Standard finishes are honey or light honey. Pickled pine, grey wash and scrubbed pine finishes are extra because of the coatings and wipings involved.

Prize winners

Artisan, craftsman, woodworker, woodcarver -- Fred Romero answers to all these descriptions. On any day, in his two-man shop, Romero may be engaged in carving a large medallion on a solid wood door, designing a contemporary computer workstation for national laboratories in Los Alamos, or assembling his handcrafted, prize-winning furniture. He captured Best of Show in 1987 and 1990 and Best of Category in 1986 at the annual Tri-Cultural Arts Festival in Espanola.

Romero's traditional trastero is made of New Mexican ponderosa pine, with hand-fitted, interlocking joints that are individually milled, he said. A large front sunburst pediment is repeated in smaller side versions. Solid lower door panels are accented by four carved medallions. Upper door sections feature flattened spindles.

Romero said he incorporates his own designs into inherently Spanish Colonial pieces, which also include bancos, credenzas, sofa tables, chip-carved priest chairs and end tables, writing tables, side chairs, dressers, night stands, headboards and cedar-lined blanket chests. Wood species are ponderosa pine, domestic sugar pine or Appalachian red oak. His exacting finishing process includes three coats of hand-rubbed tung oil.

Romero's pieces have been shown at galleries in Santa Fe and Albuquerque; Memphis, Tenn.; and La Jolla, Calif. He also supplies galleries with jewelry and pottery display cases.

Following family footsteps

"Spanish New Mexican furniture is my heritage," said David C'De Baca. "My grandfather made furniture from willow and cottonwood trees, and my father was a well-known Spanish furniture maker. This furniture is unique in its design and character, found nowhere else in the Americas or in Spain, yet the influence of Spain is easy to see," he said. C'De Baca handcrafts and signs each piece.

"I use pine, the most common wood in New Mexico, which was the wood most commonly used by the Spaniards. I also use the same carving designs and techniques they used and method of construction, which is always through-mortise and tenon. I try to stay as close to the traditions as I can and still satisfy customers' needs."

In 1978, when C'De Baca established his business, he was accepted into the Spanish Colonial Arts Society. He has displayed his furniture at the Spanish Market and won first place almost every year since.

One of his traditional trasteros is in the permanent collection of the Millicent Rogers Museum, Taos, and another is in the International Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe. A third won first place in the Spanish Market last year.

In 1989, he won the E. Boyd Award for his interpretation of a 17th century Spanish writing cabinet, a vargueno. Made of sugar pine, its front and sides are richly ornamented with carved figures from nature. The highly ornamental lock and key are hand forged iron. When the hinged front panel is dropped for use as a writing surface, six interior drawers and several compartments are accessible. Support is provided by a trestle stand with an arched stretcher symbolizing a lightning bolt. Working alone, C' De Baca crafted and carved the cabinet in about a month.

PHOTO : This table and chairs from Doolings of Santa Fe is made of first-growth ponderosa pine. All details are hand carved, including bead and bullet chairbacks and stylized Spanish foot on table legs.

PHOTO : New Mexico landscape forms the backdrop for these pieces from the collection of Southwest Spanish Craftsmen. Trastero at rear is a traditional Spanish cupboard. Table and chairs feature mortise and tenon construction.

PHOTO : A 48-inch, Territorial bench from Doolings of Santa Fe features a rush seat, scrolled arms and handcarved bead and bullet design.

PHOTO : Fred Romero designed and built this trastero with sunburst pediment from New Mexico ponderosa pine.

PHOTO : Granada highboy with its typically-Spanish, hand-forged iron underbrace and Tesuque chair are from Southwest Spanish Craftsmen.

PHOTO : Santa Fe furniture maker David C'De Baca crafted this chair with back supports and panel stepped in the manner of a native Indian dwelling.

PHOTO : Spanish and early New Mexican details enhance this Spanish credenza created by Fred Romero of Creative Woods.
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Title Annotation:American furniture industry in Santa Fe, New Mexico
Author:Garet, Barbara
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Mar 1, 1991
Previous Article:Equipment provides for a finished look.
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