September 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 5
For three centuries, from the Spanish Colonial period to the present day, benches like this fine early-nineteenth-century example have provided handsome, practical seating in countless New Mexican homes and churches. In fact, a charred banco excavated from the ruins of a seventeenth-century church is the earliest known piece of New Mexican furniture. In the bench pictured opposite, simple triangles cut from opposing splats and rails form a striking overall pattern. This use of what artists call negative space is common in New Mexican furniture and almost unknown in other early American styles.
The banco ’s design and construction demonstrate the ingenuity of the New Mexican carpenter copying sophisticated Spanish prototypes at a primitive frontier outpost five thousand miles from the mother country. The only wood available to him was soft ponderosa pine, so he had to use thicker boards and extra support. His saw, similar to a large serrated butcher knife, could not easily execute curves, so he translated curvilinear designs into straight lines.
Although New Mexican craftsmen adjusted their designs to their resources, they continued to follow the Spanish rules for proportion, which suggested that the height and width of a chest or bench should be the same. Both the height and width of the bench shown here measure one vara, about one yard. These medieval tools and methods continued relatively unchanged well into the nineteenth century.
Early New Mexican homes were sparsely furnished with only a few movable pieces supplementing adobe built-ins. Most likely, bancos were placed against the walls, as was customary in Mexican houses, leaving the center of the room empty. Frank Edwards, a soldier posted to Santa Fe in 1846, described a typical arrangement: “The houses of the poorer classes only consist of one room, with generally a partition wall as high as the waist running almost across it; and around the wall are built broad seats, upon which the blankets that compose the beds of families are laid during the day.”
Bancos also appeared on porches and patios and in churches, where one or two might be placed up front for the use of church elders or town officials. Other worshipers either stood or knelt on the dirt floor.
Some New Mexican furniture was painted in bright, multicolored designs inspired by the exquisite chests made in Michoacan, in Mexico, which were in turn influenced by Oriental lacquerware imported into Mexico in the late sixteenth century. Bancos , however, tended to be painted a solid color in the limited palette of water-based paints—yellow, brown, bright red, and blue.
By the early nineteenth century New Mexican furniture had acquired a definitive style all its own. But other influences were about to push into the Southwest. In 1821 Mexico won its independence from Spain, and trade opened for the first time between New Mexico and Missouri along the Santa Fe Trail. Merchants brought new tools, modern methods, and, eventually, milled lumber. Carpenters from the East introduced the frame saw, which could cut intricate curves, and the molding plane, both of which were enthusiastically adopted by New Mexican craftsmen. Now they could incorporate curves into the legs, skirts, and backs of their benches. For the first time they could carve designs onto strips of molding and then secure the molding to their furniture. House paints in a wide range of bright colors began to replace the traditional hues.
At the same time, chests of drawers, washstands, and bookcases were introduced into New Mexican households. The new furniture came in unfamiliar styles: Empire, Eastlake, Victorian. By the 186Os New Mexican craftsmen were combining elements of these styles into their own designs, and some bancos began to resemble Eastern-style day beds.
A judge named W. W. H. Davis described one mid-century New Mexican home as a “singular mixture of elegance and barbaric taste. In one corner stood an elegant canopied brass bedstead after the most approved Parisian style, while in close contact was another clumsily made of pine and painted a dirty red; heavy wooden benches seem misplaced beside velvetcovered chairs and a beautiful Turkey carpet….”
The judge no doubt expected that in time the barbaric would give way to the elegant. But in recent decades New Mexicans have been exchanging their velvet-covered chairs for their own home-grown furniture, and the Santa Fe style has found adherents in New York, Paris, and Tokyo. Bancos from the Spanish Colonial period now fetch between two thousand and seventyfive hundred dollars at auction. And there are enough contemporary cabinetmakers making similar benches to bring these icons of the Spanish frontier within the reach of almost everyone.