Adri Pedersen is an expert in the field of Mexican furnishings and interior design and shares insights and knowledge about the fascinating world of artisan furniture in Mexico.
Mexico’s diverse natural habitat provides furniture makers with an abundant choice of materials to work with as they craft their artisan furniture pieces. As I mentioned in previous articles, choice of materials plays a key role in styles of furniture you choose to suit your tastes and also the intended purposes of furniture situated in a particular space. In this article, I review the popular materials used for furniture in Mexico and talk about how and why each one is typically chosen for making Mexican artisan furniture.
Wood: The most common material for making furniture is wood, although wood plundering, which stretches right back to Mexico’s colonial era, has caused the Mexican government to enact laws which restrict the felling of trees and the transportation of raw wood on the country’s highways—especially precious hardwood trees—and these rules add to the final cost of the material. The most common wood used in furniture construction here is pine wood (Pino), whose trees grow tall and straight, producing large amounts of usable timber. Hardness varies, although most pine furniture is made using softer pine, which also takes a stain very well, enabling the artisan to change the hue of the wood as the design calls for or the customer desires. More expensive woods which are used to create beautiful pieces of furniture include Cedar (Cedro) which has an excellent grain and gives an attractive finish; Oak (Encino) which has a lighter hue and is very durable; Mexican Teak (Teka) which is redder than imported African teak, is naturally water and mite resistant and properly handled makes truly beautiful furniture; Walnut (Nogal) is naturally dark and creates pieces that carry depth of character; Mahogany (Caoba) offers beautiful grains in darker hues while Ash (Fresno) offers that same dignified look in lighter shades. Parota wood, known in English under various names including Raintree, Kelobra or Guanacaste, has a beautiful grain, is naturally mite and humidity resistant, and is one of the best woods for use near the ocean in salt-air environments.
Iron: Forged from the earth using fire, iron has a mystical quality and has been used over centuries for furniture making in Mexico—and around the world. The Mexican artisans who work this material with considerable dexterity are usually family businesses employing wrought-iron techniques which have been handed-down through generations. The metal is heated, manually hammered, forged, and meticulously shaped using traditional methods; not to be confused with cast iron that is formed by smelting iron ore and mixing this with other metals to create pliable alloys. Artisan furniture in Mexico may be made entirely using wrought iron, or the metal may form part of a wood piece. Wrought iron furniture is durable, and gives the spaces it occupies a sense of weight and substance; it can also be used to make an artistic statement in your home.
Marble: Marble is readily available across Mexico, garnered from quarries like stones and tiles, but is a much denser and thicker material. Depending on the region where it’s excavated, marble will come in different styles, colors, and grains. While some furniture pieces, most notably coffee tables, can be formed entirely from marble stone, this material is most often used for decorative purposes to give flair, color, or elegance to furniture made using other materials, especially wood.
Copper: The ancient “red metal” has been used decoratively for thousands of years, and is the key element used in brass (copper and zinc) and bronze (copper and tin), but is more attractive to furniture makers than either of those alloys, due to its subtlety and natural hues: when heat-treated or oxidized, the metal continues to interact with the atmosphere it lives in, capable of showing-off a spectrum of hues with its patina varying over time. The recyclable metal is a good natural partner for furniture made using wood, and its antimicrobial properties makes it particularly popular for handles, worktops, and bathtubs. Like wrought iron, artisan copper-crafting tends to be a family business in Mexico, and Santa Clara del Cobre in the state of Michoacán is home to several family-owned copper craft workshops.
Palmwood and Rattan: Palmwood is becoming increasingly popular for furniture that needs to be harder-wearing without the high expense of traditional hardwoods; it has an attractive grain and, because the tree has no limbs, the wood is knot-free. Rattan, the pliable stems of a palm, has an organic feel with earth tones that beautifully complement Mexico’s natural surroundings; Rattan is most popularly employed for use in the making of dining chairs.
Materials by themselves only tell part of the story of artisan furniture-making. All materials vary in their blend and superiority—even within a single genre. Master furniture makers will choose their wood cuts with great care using an eye for detail and mindful about the intention carried by the finished piece; marble must be similarly sourced; and metals must be wrought and shaped with great skill and a deep appreciation for a material which is particularly challenging to work.
This meticulous curation to source with precision complements how the artisans combine their chosen materials and in what measure and proportions, for this is where the craft comes into its own. In the skillful hands of the Mexican artisans we have the privilege to know and work with, select materials can be transformed into beautiful items of unique artisanal furniture which will gift a lifetime of service to you and the living spaces you enjoy.
Adri and Ken Pedersen are owners of Gringo Furniture – a U.S. based company that specializes in artisan furniture for foreign residents living in Mexico.