Muebles Rusticos in Mexico and the United States

By Harner, John | The Geographical Review, July 2002 | Go to article overview

Muebles Rusticos in Mexico and the United States

Harner, John, The Geographical Review

When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect on 1 January 1994, it was ushered in with extravagant promises of increased economic opportunities for Mexico, the United States, and Canada. With free trade each country was expected to develop a niche for items it could produce and export at less cost and more efficiently than the partner countries could. Mexico joined the agreement with hopes of attracting American capital investment to produce jobs. Investment has been made in assembly plants and agribusiness, but many traditional, noncompetitive industries in Mexico were expected to shut down (Pastor 1994). Yet few studies have addressed how small-scale producers in Mexico's traditional industries have actually fared (Zabin 1997).

The furniture industry is built on both the centuries-old Mexican tradition of artisanal handicrafts and new production facilities in northern border-state cities (Meyer and Sherman 1991; Nolan and others 1994). The industry is overwhelmingly one of widely dispersed small producers. When Mexico initiated free-market reforms in the late 1980s, a half-decade ahead of NAFTA, 65 percent of furniture manufacturers closed, unable to compete with inexpensive imports from the United States (Nolan and others 1994). (Figure 1). Forecasters predicted greater incursions of American manufacturers into the Mexican market with the passage of NAFTA, which augured further doom for the artisanal Mexican furniture industry (USDC 1993).

The reverse is the case: Overall, production of wooden furniture in Mexico grew by 7 percent in 1999 (Avila 2000). Sales of Mexican furniture in the United States rose by more than 73 percent between 1993 and 1997, and U.S. furniture imports from Mexico now exceed U.5.$1.5 billion annually (USDC 1997). The most popular import is muebles rusticos (rustic wooden furniture), usually made of pine (Figure 2). The U.S. market has expanded from sales at fashionable stores targeting young urban professionals and tourists to include mainstream malls, high-volume stores, and even swap meets. To find out why muebles rusticos have become such an important export for Mexico despite the predictions of failure due to market reforms, I first discuss the furniture style itself, then examine the centers and methods of production, and conclude with explanations for the popularity of this furniture in the United States.


The furniture industry capitalizes on a centuries-old tradition of artisanal handicrafts in Mexico, exemplified by village-level specialties among the Purepecha (Tarascans) in the state of Michoacan. Padre Vasco de Quiroga, a colonial official and Catholic bishop, is credited with having fostered village craft specialties in Purepecha communities. Their furniture and crafts have been exported throughout New Spain / Mexico for centuries. The colonial style developed into a vernacular furniture, blocky, weighty; and generally crafted of hardwoods (although neocolonial furniture produced today in Mexico has a more ornate and less sturdy form). Colonial furniture incorporated Spanish and Moorish motifs (MIFA 1983). Grooving, cutouts, and hand-carved ornamentation, inspired by the wrought-iron window grills common to parts of Spain, offered relief from an otherwise massive construction (Hammett 1994).

Mexican muebles rusticos evolved from the Spanish- and Moorish-influenced colonial furniture. According to Teresa Castello Iturbide, furniture crafted in Michoacan represents a Purepecha application atop a mudejar technique, referring to the mudejar style of reconquest Spain that itself blended Moorish design with European Gothic and baroque influence (Castello 1985; Loyzaga 1985). Muebles rusticos evidence heavy, rather unpolished, and simple features, clearly of handmade craftsmanship. These furniture pieces are not, however, "artisan" products in the strict sense of the word, because power tools and mechanization are regularly used, yielding "only the formal appearance of the original crafts" (Garcia 1993, 75). …

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