Although furniture is usually too bulky to carry back home with your airline luggage, low Mexican prices make it possible for you to ship your purchases home and enjoy beautiful, unusual pieces for half the price, including transport, you would pay—even if you could find them—outside Mexico.
A number of classes of furniture (muebles, moo-AY-blays) are crafted in villages near the sources of raw materials: notably, wood, rattan, bamboo, or wrought iron.
Sometimes it seems as if every house in Mexico is furnished with colonial-style furniture, the basic design for much of it dating at least to the Middle Ages. Although many variations exist, most colonial-style furniture is heavily built. Table and chair legs are massive, usually lathe-turned; chair backs are customarily arrow-straight and often vertical. Although usually brown-varnished, colonial-style tables, chairs, and chests sometimes shine with inlaid wood or tile, or animal and flower designs. Family shops turn out good furniture, usually in the country highlands, where suitable wood is available. Products from shops in and around Guadalajara (Tlaquepaque and Tonalá), Lake Pátzcuaro (especially Tzintzuntzán), and Taxco and Olinalá, Guerrero, are among the most renowned.
Equipal, a very distinctive and widespread class of Mexican furniture, is made of leather, usually brownish pigskin or cowhide, stretched over wood frames. Factories center mostly in Guadalajara and nearby Tlaquepaque and Tonalá villages.
It is interesting that lacquered furniture, in both process and design, has much in common with lacquerware produced half a world away in China. The origin of Mexican lacquerware presents an intriguing mystery. What is certain, however, is that it predated the conquest and was originally practiced only in the Pacific states of Guerrero and Michoacán. Persistent legends of pre-Columbian coastal contact with Chinese traders give weight to the speculation, shared by a number of experts, that the Chinese may have taught the lacquerware art to the Mexicans many centuries before the conquest.
Today, artisan families in and around Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, and Olinalá, Guerrero, carry on the tradition. The process, which at its finest resembles cloisonné manufacture, involves carving and painting intricate floral and animal designs, followed by repeated layerings of lacquer, clay, and sometimes gold and silver to produce satiny, jewel-like surfaces.
A sprinkling of villages produce furniture made of plant fiber, such as reeds, raffia, and bamboo. In some cases, entire communities, such as Ihuatzio (near Pátzcuaro, Michoacán) and Villa Victoria (Mexico state, west of Toluca), have long harvested the bounty of local lakes and marshes as the basis for their products.
Wrought iron, produced and worked according to Spanish tradition, is used to produce tables, chairs, and benches. Ruggedly fashioned in a riot of baroque scrollwork, it often decorates garden and patio settings. Several colonial cities, notably San Miguel de Allende, Toluca, and Guanajuato, are wrought-iron manufacturing centers.