Most Americans who go regularly to Mexican restaurants have very likely seen these, but may not know what they are called other than “Mexican chairs.” The name “equipal” derives from the Nahuatl word for chair, but not just any chair, but those fit for persons of status. Legend says that Montezuma had his own equipal, brought from this area, but the truth of this story is in doubt as the Aztec Empire never extended this far west.
The center of equipal chair production is the town of Zacoalco de Torres, about an hour south of Guadalajara. Its a world away from the sprawling city, still in touch with its rural roots. The traditional materials used in its production are from this area, although deforestation has meant bringing wood from farther away and the introduction of others. There are two traditional woods for the chair. “Palo dulce” (kidneywood tree) is used to make the base of the chair as well as frame for the seat, both in an elongated “D.”
The criss-crossed slats which define the chair (and related furnishings) are made from a wood “posa panal” (cant find a translation for this one). This wood is distinguished with two tones: a light beige with a streak of reddish cedar-like color, although some slats can be all red. These are traditionally carved with machetes to have notches on both ends, so that they can be tied with the other slats and onto the two D frames. They are somewhat weight-bearing, but more decorative then functional. Traditionally, the slats were tied with ixtle, a strong fiber derived from maguey leaves, but almost all chairs today are tied with synthetic cord, with artisans assure is equal in strength. The resulting knots are covered in one of two ways; they are either covered in a black resin or long thin twigs or wood are placed over them.
At the Jesus Osorio family workshop in Zacoalco, with the maestro.
Leather is used for the seat and back and usually has at least some padding. The leather on the seat does not bear the entire weight of the person, rather there is also a web of cordwork extending from the seat frame as well.
Equipal manufacture was originally limited to the making of one style of chair, with a back that curved around to create short armrests. Over the past decades, the market has expanded what these craftsmen make, from various styles of chairs, to sofas, to tables and even desks, bookcases and more. It is important to note that the use of criss-crossed slats remain identifying, still forming the base of seats and tables and as decorative elements for other kinds of furniture.
About 300 families are involved in the craft in some way, with most workshops located on or around Rayon Street, just west of the town center. Zacoalco has not make this industry a tourist attraction. We had to ask around a bit as the tourist office in the municipal hall was closed on a Saturday, but people were happy to help us and to point us in the right direction. Its a little bit of a walk before arriving, but the artisans’ area is a pleasant neighborhood, still lacking in the pretentiousness. Here you can peek into workshops as doors are generally open and see real people doing real work with little regard to who might be passing by. However, those who politely knock and ask to chat are quite welcome.
A well-built chair generally last about 20+ years. Usually the leather gives out before this, which is replaceable although older craftsmen in town complain that they cannot get leather of the same quality or thickness anymore. This reflects one problem with the chair’s popularity, pressure on raw materials. Newer artisans are experimenting with other kinds of hard woods, but the less-scrupulous are substituting cheaper and less-durable materials. Like all other handcrafts, it pays to know what you are looking for and to ask questions. Good craftspeople have no problem showing you their workshops and processes.