While there may be 300+ families making equipal chairs in the small town of Zacoalco, Jalisco, all of them know one particular family workshop, that of José Reyes Laguna Anica. Maestro Laguna’s family has been making equipal chairs and other furniture is the same home workshop for over 150 years.
The business was started by his father. Initially, Laguna’s thoughts were not in following his father’s footsteps. In the first half of the 20th century in Zacoalco, education was available only until the fourth grade. Laguna attended all four grades with the same teachers, a married couple, who were impressed with the young José and tried to convince his father to let him continue and become a teachers’ assistant. However, the family decided against this, and the maestro began working and apprenticing in the making of the chairs when he was 11 years old.
Maestro Laguna learned to do everything related to the making of the chairs, cutting wood, placing the criss-cross slat patterns, stringing seat bases and painting. Well, he learned almost everything. One notable exception is upholstering the seats and backs in leather. Other than the fact that the business always had people who did this work, he is not sure why he never learned.
The family home and workshop is located on Vicente Guerrero Street (near Pino Suarez), a block from the railroad track, still in operation. The work area is in the back of the complex, accessible by passing through family areas and an area that serves as a kind of office and showroom. The center of activity is a semi-covered patio strewn with wood pieces, cane, cord, paints and leather, with various people working at any one time.
While family still participates in the business, most of the actual work is done by craftspeople that Laguna employs. He insists that all of these craftspeople go through the same learning process that he did as a child. Over the decades, a number of his employees have left to start their own workshops, with some even heading to the US to work in the making and repairing of the chairs. On the other hand, he has a number who have been with him for decades. Laguna does not claim to know why these employees have been so loyal to him. He is quite proud of his current and former employees, insisting that they are the best equipal makers in Zacoalco, far superior to any others.
However, the future of the workshop is not immediately apparent to the casual visitor. Maestro Laguna himself is 82 years old. His wife used to work with him, but has since mostly retired. He has one son who works for him, but most of his work is in delivery, especially in the state of Jalisco. A daughter participates in production, but it is secondary to job as a teacher.
The main issue for Maestro Laguna is the quality and durability of his products. Traditonal equipal chairs are still made with the two native hard woods for this purpose: palo dulce for the frame and back and rosa panal for the criss-crossed slats that define the furniture. No filler woods are used and the leather is still pigskin, preferred because it allows air circulation and does not harden and crack the way bovine leather does. Techniques have not changed, from the bending of the palo dulce branches, the weaving of cane and how slats and seats are cut and tied.
However, this does not mean that the business has not had to make some concessions to modern reality. Traditionally, equipal seats were tied with ixtle cord, made from maguey fiber. Although Laguna still believes that this cord is superior, is it simply not made anymore, so he has had to resort to synthetic. To be sure that the seats remain durable, the workshop as taken to reinforcing them by gluing the slats and some other parts, using a compound that they have developed and still make themselves. In the end, the cord does more to set the pieces in place; the glue is what provides the stability over the long run. Another issue is with the pigskin. Laguna states that the leather available today is not of the same quality as in the past, even though it is often the most expensive element of the chair.
Laguna states that the chairs, if cared for, typically last about 20 years and can last up to 30. Usually it is the leather that goes first, but it can be replaced. In fact, part of the workshop’s business is repairing and refurbishing chairs they have sold years before. Some customers insist on having old chairs fixed, even if it is more cost effective to replace them.
Perhaps typical to a man of his age, Laguna spent much of the interview time complaining about the poor quality of the equipals made today, even in Zacoalco, calling them “trash.” He even claims to have seen chairs lose slats as they are being loaded for shipping. He has great respect for his father who insisted on selecting and training craftsmen carefully.
Part of the reason for the low quality goods is that there is now heavy competition among numerous producers. Laguna’s chairs take longer to make and are more expensive to produce, but he refuses to make lower-quality goods. This means that he has to work hard to get and maintain clients, demonstrating to them that the merchandise is worth the extra cost. This is not easy in Mexico, where a strong bargaining culture exists. Despite the difficulty of selling higher quality stuff, he is not especially concerned with the future of the business in this respect.
Over his lifetime, the equipal business in Zacoalco has changed dramatically. The main changes are the quantity and variety of products the town produces. The main driver of this is the furniture’s popularity in Mexican tourist areas and consequently abroad, especially in the United States.
The Laguna workshop sells all over Mexico and various nations abroad, making pieces to order. Clients include retailers and restaurants, but most are still individual end-user customers who come to him through word-of-mouth. From the beginning of the family business, Guadalajara has always been a major market for the furniture, but it was the construction of the railroad that allowed the business to grow. At first it allowed easier shipment to Guadalajara and some other cities such as Ciudad Guzman. But it also allowed shipment to the port of Manzanillo, and from there to the northwest of Mexico, where they chairs become very popular, especially in Sonora, Mazatlan, and Puerto Vallarta, all still major markets for the business. The port and train allowed shipping to Tijuana and Mexicali, where chairs are transferred to trucks to cross the border to US markets.
When Laguna was young, Zacoalco was very isolated, then accessibly only by dirt road turnoff from the highway to Talapa from Guadalajara. When the first Americans began to come to his shop, he met them in Guadalajara to escort them because the road was too rough and too hard to navigate. Today, it is quite common to receive foreign visitors. The business now has connections with customers in Japan, Spain, Chile, Brazil and more. However, international business has not always been an easy thing. For example, he had a Japanese client who would insist on him erasing his name and business information that he etches into the chairs, instead putting a label that said “Made in Japan” in a prominent position. He did do this for a time, but eventually was able to refuse and let the client go.
While evidence of design innovation can be seen in other Zacoalco workshops, it is particularly noticeable in Laguna’s. Many of the pieces used and on display in the house/workshop are not traditional designs. Many are typical Mexican rustic furniture, with the traditional criss-crossed slats of rosa panal as decoration. The main reason for the innovation is market demand, with clients asking for bedroom sets, desks, dining room tables, book cases and more. For these pieces, arrangements are made with local carpenters who made the base in pine, with the workshop adding the final elements (generally slats, possibly leather, and varnish). Laguna has no problems with the creation of these new products but leaves most the design and execution of these pieces to his craftsmen.
Despite his age, Laguna has no thoughts of retirement. He says this is not possible as the workshop runs on a thin margin. He says he pays his craftspeople better than average, but there is no retirement package for either the family or the workers. The closest to retirement is what he does now, supervising (which is says is only minimally needed) and less physically-demanding tasks such as varnishing.