Custom made in Mexico

A couple of readers asked about the design of the iron gates. The quick answer is that it was adapted from a photo we found on the Internet, which we then had–as many components in our house–reproduced by a local craftsman.

“Made to order,” “custom made” and “one of a kind” all have a ring of something really exclusive or prohibitively expensive. But in Mexico it’s the rule rather than the exception: Even when you add on the “gringo surcharge,” made-to-order, original work here costs only about half to one-third as much as comparable pieces in the U.S.

In Chicago Stew and I renovated four buildings (two of them three-flats) and the closest we came to custom carpentry were a set of modest pine shelves and a few cabinets that we then stained and finished ourselves. Full-blown custom carpentry was an indulgence only the Architectural Digest crowd along Lake Shore Drive could dream about. In fact Stew can tell war stories from his days as the co-owner of a home inspection company, during which he visited renovation projects where hundreds of thousands of dollars would be poured just into a kitchen remodel starting with cabinets custom built in Maine, England or Italy. Many of the showrooms were open “to the trade only” which sometimes meant you’d give your credit card to the designer and let her whoop it up and present you with the bill when it was all done.

In Mexico, there’s often no alternative to the custom made. In the States if you want a media cabinet with so many shelves or drawers, you might leaf through the Room and Board catalog, and pick something that fits. A team of obsessive Scandinavian elves in Minnesota then would build or assemble it, and ship it to you promptly–is there any other way?–usually in about a month. Problem solved. Or if not that, maybe IKEA, Crate and Barrel or Ethan Allen could help.

We went on a fairly exhaustive tour of furniture stores both locally, and in Querétaro and Mexico City, that took us from the primitive to the bah-humbug, and ultimately to the are-you-out-of-mind expensive.

Manufacturers of “rustic” furniture abound in and near San Miguel, but their offerings, usually in pine, are most often so rough it takes a laser-eyed decorating vision to figure out where to go with the stuff.

Though I don’t like rustic furniture, I find folk ceramics and textiles beautiful and fascinating regardless of their flaws. We bought four coffee mugs at an indigenous folk arts fair in the neighboring state of Michoacán and put them on a glass shelf in the kitchen. The set looks similar from 10 feet away. But move closer and you’ll find places where the colors ran or the design doesn’t match. In fact, in three of the mugs the hummingbirds are flying left, but in the fourth the little guy is headed right. You can buy perfectly matching mugs made by Corning but they won’t reflect the painstaking individuality of a human hand, even one, as in this case, with a shaky sense of direction. At Corning there would be someone manning the cup-making line, and tossing the ones that were not perfect, but in Michoacán an individual would spend an hour or so hunched over each mug, painting each of those goofy little birds, each of them unique individuals too.

The dimensions in Mexican-made furniture can be a challenging. Mattresses are about eight inches shorter than their standard Beautyrest sisters, I imagine because Mexican sleepers are that much more compact. The seats of couches can be shallower. Sometimes the seats on chairs are smaller too. On occasion, big-assed Americans could notice a difference, like, geez, we seem to have more ass than chair here. (This last problem may be rectified soon, as Mexicans keep gaining weight by inhaling two-liter bottles of full-octane Coke and sugar-covered donitas, and furniture grows to meet the challenge.)

From the rustic you can slide on to the world of Andalusian monastery-type decor, also known as the “San Miguel Style.” Quite often crucifixes, madonnas and assorted religious icons are part of the mix. The furniture and decorative objects are reasonably well made and priced–and they sell like the ears of corn boiled in murky water and slathered with mayonnaise and hot chili powder sold by street vendors.

Indeed, as you gradually make the rounds of San Miguel-style maisonettes you keep running into dark rooms sometimes populated with exactly the same chairs, tables and lamps, likely picked by the same decorator. Your mind starts playing tricks: Am I at the home of the same friend or a different friend with the same kind of furniture?

Then you get on the bus and head for Mexico City where practically anything is available, living or otherwise. I used to think of this astonishing metropolis as a wretchedly poor anthill of 20 million people. Not quite. Now I figure about 10 million may be wretchedly poor, eight or nine million are schlepping along, some more tenuously than others, and the remaining one million or so are piggishly rich.

To serve the latter group, there are opulent boulevards with Ralph Lauren boutiques (maybe with a guard at the door), sidewalk cafes, and here and there furniture and home decor emporiums to match anything in Dallas or Chicago. If you have hankering for Natuzzi or Roche Bobois leather sectionals, no problema, but hang on to your sombrero when they quote you prices–the stuff likely is even more expensive than in the U.S. or Canada.

If you’re lucky, you ultimately enter the world of individual Mexican craftsmen, many of them amazingly talented, though timeliness sooner or later will become an issue. It’s as if the batteries on these guys’ watches died four years ago, right about the time they lost their appointment books, if they ever had one. A family we know was still waiting for the kitchen cabinets four months after the rest of their house had been finished and they had moved in.

The incredibly good iron man, who made the gates and various other pieces, simply disappeared five months ago, with some projects for us still pending. Maybe he had a side job we didn’t know about.

Our carpenter, a 30-something guy with handsome indigenous facial features, built all the kitchen cabinets (my least favorite part of the project); the bathroom cabinets and all the closets (including a walk-in with various drawers, compartments etc.); solid-wood interior doors that we specified to be wider and taller than usual; a large dining room table; a media wall cabinet; a wall bookshelf; plus the desk and other furniture in the office.

The media cabinet has specially neurotic custom-made touches, like a drawer for a turntable and another for LPs, plus other storage space for CDs, DVDs and the audio equipment. We still need to hook up the turntable.

In the office, a U-shape desk by the windows is big enough for two people. The wood for the media cabinet is tzalam, a Mexican nogal that is considered exotic in places other than Mexico. It’s extremely tough and has beautiful veining. In the office, the furniture is a combination of tzalam with American maple fronts. The office came out particularly well, and has still more neurotic detailing like a shelf for the CPU, slide-out drawers for a printer and some of the electronic equipment, and a separate shelf for CDs.

The cost of all the woodwork from A to Z came to about $25,000 dollars. Design ideas came from the master carpenter himself, and from an interior designer, plus pictures from magazines and on-the-fly modifications from us. We’re delighted with the woodwork because it fits our needs precisely and, and for me the best part is that you’ll never find anything like it anywhere else.

As for the iron gates, the design came from a photo Stew found on the Internet of an art deco building in Paris. As one reader pointed out, it resembles some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs, particularly his stained glass windows. When we ordered the outside doors, we added a semi-circular plate around the door handles to match the detail on the patio gate.

The iron work fascinated me because I can’t imagine how one works with iron and tame it into so many forms. When it’s cool it’s totally unyielding and when red hot, you have to bend it or bang it into submission with a mallet–quickly and carefully. Or something like that.

Isidro was the iron man on this project. He was a very soft spoken, talented guy with a wild mane of graying hair, and no feel whatever for appointments, punctuality or deadlines. You’d ask him when something would be ready and he would blink and absent mindedly say something like, “Thursday at four-thirty!” After awhile you quit asking and just hope.

If anyone sees Isidro, please give him our regards and thanks for a job well done–except for whatever he never finished.

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