Popular Culture / Furniture in Puerto Rico
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hat racks
The development of furniture in Puerto Rico has followed the island’s social and historical evolution. The craft dates back to the Taino culture. Archaeological sites indicate that furniture was scarce in the pre-Columbian period. The furnishings that have been found are limited basically to the ceremonial seats, called dujos (made of stone or wood), baskets and hammocks. The hammock was a blanket sewed in pairs, made from a cotton fabric woven by hand by the women of the tribe. The Spaniards found it to be cool and comfortable and immediately adopted its use.

Baskets woven from the petate palm, other palm fronds, or cotton and used to store or collect fruit also came from the Taino culture. The baskets were hung from the roof of the huts and were strapped to the back to be used to carry infants. Like the hammocks, the baskets were woven by the women. These baskets continued in use with few changes until the beginning of the 20th century, especially by people in the rural areas. They were ideal for harvesting coffee.

These pieces survived the Spanish conquest and colonization. The piece that underwent the greatest transformation was the dujo. By the 18th century, it was called the turé (made of wood pieces held together by dowels) and, although it preserved the tendencies of the original dujo, its back was altered to make it higher. These pieces were made from one or two pieces of solid wood. It evolved until it became a bench in the countryside.

The Spanish conquistadors adopted Taino furnishings, but they also brought artifacts and furniture with them. The first to arrive on the island in the 16th and 17th centuries showed little ornamentation: leather seats, sling chairs and three-key locking trunks. They also introduced a portable desk called the barqueño, which showed Arabic influences. After the second half of the 18th century, furniture imports increased and had a greater influence on the development of Puerto Rican furniture.

During the first half of the 18th century, late baroque style and French neo-classical style furnishings from the Louis XVI era arrived on the island. The styles were named after the monarchs. The "fernandino" style, named for Fernando VII (King of Spain in the 18th century), was an adaptation of the French imperial style. It was characterized by its neo-classical aesthetics, with Greco-Roman ornamentation such as laurel leaves, garlands and acanthus leaves. The "alfonsino" style, named for King Alfonso XII (King of Spain from 1874 -1885), was very similar to the "isabelino" style, and was noted for the use of balusters in small handrails.

The style most influential on the island was the one named for Isabel II, the daughter of Fernando VII and María Cristina (1830-1870). This "isabelino" style, especially the latter period during the second stage of her reign, was concurrent with the French empire and the reign of Queen Victoria in England, and so is also known as Victorian style. Among the characteristics of this style that are still preserved in Puerto Rico are the use of simply shaped balusters and striated and ringed columns. This style is considered to represent the development of local Puerto Rican furniture. One of the first adaptations made to this style – also known in Puerto Rico as "medallón de Fortaleza," because it was used in La Fortaleza palace — was a change in the back of the chair. Wicker replaced cloth. The "isabelino" style and its island variations lasted until the second half of the 20th century, when industrialization and the shift from an agricultural to industrial way of life changed the Puerto Rican lifestyle.

Another style adapted on the island was neo-classical. It uses thin, straight lines that come together at the top. This style also emphasizes the back of the chair, which is crowned with different motifs. Puerto Rican furniture makers replaced the heraldic symbols with flowers, especially impatiens, thus imposing a local touch that showed the growth of an indigenous style. The renaissance style, with its straight lines, inlaid materials, metal plating, cubic and geometric forms, leather embossed with busts in profile, bronze tacks and feet shaped with striations, also had an influence on local furniture making, as did the baroque style, with curved, wavy lines and spirals.

Native wood was used to fabricate furniture. Furniture makers chose wood that could be easily carved but was durable. Among the favored kinds of wood were satinwood, moca, granadillo, bullet-wood, lignum vitae, jotoba, laurel, white cogwood, cedar, maga and, more recently arrived but quickly adopted, Honduran mahogany. The latter was the most commonly used wood during the late 19th century and most of the 20th century. Most furniture was made to order and the cabinetmaker or carpenter was responsible for the entire job, from cutting the tree to designing the furniture and building it.

Among the types of furniture that were most common in middle-class residences in the 18th through 20th centuries were armchairs, sofas, beds, wardrobes, desks, hat racks, china cabinets, tables, dining tables, humidors, and chifforobes (a piece that includes a dresser, wardrobe, trunk, drawers, a dressing table or coquette, and a drawer or box for storing jewelry). The side board was a very ornamented type of furniture that was used in middle-class homes on the island and by the Spanish and European elites who emigrated with the new opening and greater flexibility in the Spanish laws of 1815. Meanwhile, more humble homes were furnished with rudimentary furnishings such as hammocks, beds known as "barbacoas," iron beds, cots, tables, rustic benches, trunks, and wooden crates.

The local furniture industry began to develop in the 19th century and reached its peak in the early 20th century, before declining due to competition from United States furniture makers. Some of the oldest collections of furniture are located at the Casa Comercio Vidal y Compañía, Ponce (1843); the Casa Ledé, Guayama (1850); and Casa Margarida, Ponce. Most of the businesses that make and sell furniture are located in the southwestern part of the island, particularly around Ponce, Yauco, Guayama, Cabo Rojo and Aguadilla.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Puerto Rican furniture makers began to experiment with other styles, such as art noveau, arts and crafts, modernism, the María Teresa style, art deco, the styles used by architect Henry Klumb in the 1950s and 1960s, and pop style during the 1970s, up to and including contemporary styles. They also used different materials and began to incorporate plastic or polyethylene and nylon. Fiberboard and adornments were used as new motifs during the aerospace era of the 1950s and 1960s, psychedelic colors appeared in the 1970s, modular furniture in the 1980s and 1990s, and eclecticism, which dominates the trends today, especially the preference for Italian styles.

Several furniture factories remain in operation today, producing furniture in the old "isabelino" and traditional rural early Puerto Rican styles.


Importación y producción del mueble en el Puerto Rico de los siglos XVI y XVII. Dir. Eva BurgosBurgos: A Spanish province, part of the autonomous community of Castile and, located in the northern area of the Iberian Peninsula. Malavé. Fundación Puertorriqueña de las Humanidades, 2000. DVD.

Importación y producción del mueble en el Puerto Rico de los siglos XVIII y XIX. Dir. Luis Collazo. Fundación Puertorriqueña de las Humanidades, 2000. DVD.

Vega Rodríguez, Edgardo. Puerto Rico Clásico: Naturaleza, forma y espíritu, legado del mueble puertorriqueño. San Juan, P. R.: Fundación Puertorriqueña de las Humanidades, 2005. Impreso.

Autor: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: September 09, 2014.

Version: 10092201 Rev. 1
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