South-of- the-border style
Two new Chico stores bring chic Mexican furniture to the area
How’s this for a job description? Take several, tax-deductible trips to Mexico each year. Visit with friends or family, get a tan, buy some furniture, then jet back to Chico and sell the stuff. Who wouldn’t be envious of that kind of lifestyle?
All right, so it’s not that easy. There are risks involved. Besides the shipping expenses and duty hassles that plague every import business, the market for Mexican furniture has yet to be established in Chico. After all, not everyone is ready to make the aesthetic jump from the staid and practical furnishings most Americans own to the often exotic and sometimes even primitive look of Mexican furniture.
In the past year, two stores have opened up in Chico that aim to bring south-of-the-border decor to Northern California. Not coincidentally, they are both partly owned by people who also run Mexican restaurants in town.
Lenny Dinov, owner of El Patrên restaurant, was the first to open his import store, called, you guessed it, El Patrên Imports. He said he got in the business partly through family connections and because he had been enthralled by the hefty craftsmanship of Mexican furniture for years.
“A lot of Mexican families, you go to their house, everything’s from Mexico, and everything’s nice,” Dinov said. “A lot of people go down there and try to bring things back, but the average person, if they try to do that, it turns out being more expensive—maybe double or triple what it would cost at the shop.”
Dinov said his family connections in Mexico allow him to pick up some great bargains. But even more than that, he tries to make his customers feel like they’ve actually taken their own trip to Mexico when they enter his shop.
“If they want to bargain or talk me down, I say, ‘Go ahead.’ We want people to feel like they’re in Mexico.”
Dinov, with his “en la familia” approach, had the Mexican furniture market cornered for a good seven months until another shop, Del Sol, opened up across town. But, although there is competition between the two stores, they set themselves apart from one another by carrying almost completely different lines of furniture.
Johnny Scurto, who also owns Tres Hombres restaurant downtown, opened Del Sol Furnishing and Design with two partners about five months ago hoping that Chicoans, like so many other Californians, would fall in love with Mexican-made, Mediterranean-style decor. So far, his instincts have proven him right. Visit the store on a typical weekday afternoon and you’re likely to see Scurto running from one customer to another, answering questions about where the furniture came from and how it is made.
Though the store has just started to advertise, business is already fairly brisk, thanks mostly to new customers telling their friends about the place, Scurto said.
“There’s a hundred thousand people in the area, and only a small percentage of them know we’re here. Word of mouth is really big for us.”
Mexican furniture has been growing in popularity for years. According to economic figures compiled by the U.S. Census, Mexico shipped more than $3.2 billion worth of furniture here in 2000, compared to just under $2.9 billion in 1999. Figures for last year are incomplete, and the 1999 and 2000 figures include separate items like mattresses and pillows. Still, though, the numbers show that exporting furniture has become a major part of the Mexican economy over the last decade.
Although Scurto denies the stuff is “trendy,” he wouldn’t have gone into the business if the market for it didn’t exist.
“I think this is what people want,” he said. “Everything in California has that Spanish, Mediterranean, Mexican influence.”
Contemporary Mexican furniture comes in a variety of styles, ranging from the imposing, almost medieval look of rough-hewn pine with wrought-iron accents, to the more subtle and familiar Mission-style pieces. Often working with materials that domestic craftsmen tend to avoid, the manufacturers of Mexican furniture seem to work a little harder to bring out the beauty and functionality in their creations.
In some pieces at El Patrên, the unlikely medium of plate iron has been used to create huge armoires that look as if they could hold either a 32-inch TV for your average couch potato or a cache of rifles for Pancho Villa. The heavy, iron doors have been pressed thin and hammered into a stud pattern before being polished and welded into place. If you’re going to buy one of these, make sure you have a big room with a strong floor to keep it in.
“Some people come in and say, ‘You’d need a mansion for some of these,'” said Maribel Montes, a clerk at El Patrên. “But usually they can fit in someone’s house. Maybe not in a small apartment, though.”
According to Dinov, some pieces, like the pair of 5-feet-by-6-feet mirrors he recently sold, will actually make a room look bigger. But what most of his customers appreciate is the solid, almost-indestructible feel of the craftsmanship.
“They put more into it,” he said. “You go to Lowe’s and buy an armoire or something, a lot of it’s going to be particle board—it’s not sturdy. This stuff is thick wood; it’s built heavy. It’s going to last, especially the wrought iron.”
El Patrên also sells a lot of outdoor items, like glazed earthen pots with iron stands. For those who always wanted to have an authentic Southwestern-style patio to entertain on, there is the chimenea. Made of thick, fired clay, these “little chimneys” are like small, outdoor fireplaces, perfect for gazing into on warm summer nights.
The other side of Mexican furniture is represented by pieces featuring classical, often provincial lines, with finishes that range from whimsical to sedate. A writing desk with looping, wrought-iron legs is stained bright green or blue. A massive armoire is understated by classical accents and a deep brown finish.
Many first-time Del Sol customers are also surprised to see what might have been ordinary objects—tables, shelves, wardrobes—turned into functional folk art, painted with still-life subjects or traditional Mexican themes. Some have been artificially stressed to give them an antique look.
“Most people are just blown away by it,” Scurto said. “They hear most of the stuff is from Mexico, and they just assume it’s all rustic, and it’s not.”
Scurto’s partner and interior designer, Judy Catalano, is so sensitive to the “rustic” tag, she doesn’t even like to hear it called “Mexican furniture.”
“It’s not Mexican furniture, it’s Mediterranean,” she said. “We’ve got very finished, very polished pieces here that you would think were made in Italy.”
In fact, Catalano said some Del Sol pieces were designed in Italy but produced by Mexican workers. The name of the designer, she said, is a trade secret.
“I don’t want other people trying to find him,” she explained.
That’s OK, Judy, you can keep your secret. Those who already own a few pieces of Mexican furniture are happy enough knowing that they no longer have to search laboriously through the markets of Guadalajara just to find a set of matching end tables.