The construction and form of New Mexican furniture during the colonial period were based on sixteenth-century Spanish prototypes. These models were for years copied in provincial areas of Spain and with regional variations in the New World.In New Mexico, the only woods readily available for furniture making were local pines. Unlike hardwood, pine has a tendency to split in straight lines along the grain, making it difficult to execute curved lines of baroque design. Given the soft brittle nature of pine and the coarse tools available, furniture made in New Mexico followed sturdy designs that precluded elaborate carving.
No identifiable furniture made in New Mexico survives from the early 1700s. In the later eighteenth century the forms of furniture most common in New Mexico were the same as those used in Spain and Mexico: chests, benches, armchairs, side chairs, tables, cupboards, and shelves. As in the rest of the Spanish world, chests and boxes were the most common New Mexican furniture forms during the colonial period.
The introduction of neoclassical styles to northern Mexico and New Mexico is often credited to Anglo-American merchants traveling from the East over the Santa Fe Trail, but the pervasive presence of the neoclassical style in Mexico from the late eighteenth century on must be acknowledged as the main source of this influence. In furniture, East Coast or Anglo-American interpretations of the neoclassical style are frequently referred to as American Federal or Duncan Phyfe. In New Mexico, the regional interpretation of neoclassical motifs is known as the Territorial style. As part of the neoclassical style sweeping the Western world, the small and versatile daybed became popular.
Traders from the eastern United States introduced new tools and materials to New Mexican craftsmen and paved the way for carpenters from the East who immigrated to New Mexico at the same time. When the United States Army of the American West occupied New Mexico in 1846, Anglo-American influence increased. The establishment of the first sawmill in New Mexico made milled lumber available for the first time. New Mexican furniture of the mid-nineteenth century often combines traditional colonial construction elements with decorative techniques made possible by newly available milled lumber and tools, especially jigsaws and molding planes. By the late nineteenth century, decorative elements borrowed from other styles, including Victorian as well as Renaissance, Romanesque, and Gothic revivals, were grafted onto traditional Spanish furniture forms by New Mexican craftsmen, creating a lively and varied new style with an unmistakable character all its own.
[excerpted from an article by Donna Pierce in Spanish New Mexico, The Spanish Colonial Arts Society Collection]