San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Handcrafted Furniture Gives Soul to Living Space

EVERYBODY has at least one piece inhis home – the rocking chair that was usedby Mom when she was pregnant; the well worndesk that has traveled the Atlantic, butstill glows after a fine polish; even the stoolused as a child to reach the cookie jar atGrandpa’s house – furniture often steps outsidefunction, and beauty, and takes on asoul of its own.Yes, at root, it is nothing more thanwood and glue – a material object. Butwhen time, place and creator are taken intoconsideration, a dining room table can be anheirloom, a bookcase a trigger of a thousandmemories.Such is often the personality of handcraftedfurniture. And between an entiretown dedicated to the trade and severalcraftsmen, Costa Rica offers plenty ofopportunities to make a chair more than achair or a dresser more than a dresser.After being enchanted by Monteverde’scloud forests and finding tranquility onGuanacaste’s beaches, Costa Rican visitorsoften find themselves inSarchí, the country’sfamed woodcrafts townin the northwest CentralValley.THERE they cancapture their memoriesand the skills of a furnituremaker who has beenworking with wood sincelearning the trade fromhis father 40 years ago.But, while easy and well-known, Sarchímay not be the best the country has to offerin handcrafted furniture.“I went to Sarchí, I searched all over thecountry, and the best I found was here,” saidIsham Collier about Costa Furniture(, 637-8120) inPlaya Herradura on the central Pacific coast.Collier owns nearby Docelunas Hotel &Spa, where all of the furniture – from entertainmentcenters to bedside tables – is handcrafted.“I had a very clear vision in mind ofwhat I wanted, and a lot of the furniture Ihad in mind simply does not exist in CostaRica, or anywhere,” he said.CRAFTSMEN at Costa Furniture cancreate from the visions of one person, butthey often work off pictures or designs customersselect out of an encyclopedia, ownerJosé Costa said.“The advantage of custom furniture iswe can be very exotic, building handcarvedLouis XV bedroom sets, but we canalso be very simple and contemporary, withadirondacks and bar stools,” he said.Jay Morrison, owner of Tierra Extraña(282-6697) in Santa Ana said he and hiscraftsmen sit down with clients to createpurely unique designs. For example, thestore was recently asked to make a handcarvedpair of crutches.“We try to add as much artistic contentas we can. We try to do all original designs,we don’t want to copy anything exactly butlisten to what the customer wants and createsomething new and different,” he said.MORRISON has been in business formore than 30 years and said the majority ofhis furniture is shipped to the United Statesafter it is purchased. This is not only becauseof the beautiful designs he creates – includingsolid slab tabletops made out of 15-yearoldwoods – but because of the price.A standard mid-size dining room tableand chairs made out of cenizaro – a rich,dark, hard wood – would cost $1,500-2,000, he said. A similar piece in the UnitedStates would be $5,000-7,000.Costa hopes that his prices are at least50% of what could be found in the UnitedStates and ships muchof what his companymakes.But Collier suggestsCosta Rica residentsalso take a second lookat the country’s custommadefurniture, especiallythose consideringimporting first-classpieces from overseas.“(Importing) is moreof a headache than it isworth. I believe in doing as much as you canwith what surrounds you,” Collier said.WHAT surrounds Costa Rican craftsmenis some very fine wood, Costa said.However, people must be very carefulthat the wood they are using was obtainedlegally, he said. Costa Furniture uses guanacastewood (which is not from guanacastetrees), teak from plantations, blackash and black cedar, he said.“A lot of people come to me asking formahogany, which is protected. But the qualityof mahogany is not far from thesewoods. Once they come to our showroomand see the quality of this wood, they haveno complaints,” Costa said.Morrison said he, too, only uses legallyobtained woods. His store also reforestsabandoned pastureland with the types oftrees they use, he said. In this way he hopesthe legacy of handcrafted furniture not onlylasts in bedrooms and dining rooms, but inthe country as a whole.Tips on Buying Handcrafted FurnitureJay Morrison, owner of Tierra Extraña;José Costa, owner of Costa Furniture andeverybody’s favorite handyman Bob Vila( offer this advice whenbuying handcrafted furniture:1. Interview the craftsman, learn about hisbackground and training. Look at the image ofthe showroom or store or ask to see worksamples, in order to see the quality of theirwork and what they are capable of.2. Be careful moving furniture from adamp climate to a dry climate, as wood maysplit and shrink. Make sure to use dry woodfrom the start. Morrison suggests kiln-driedwood, as half-dried wood can open up, unglueand crack when sent abroad. Be particularlycautious when buying wood from Sarchí. Ask ifsomebody has a moisture meter.3. Find out if the craftsman guarantees hiswork. A good one who is well trained and committedto the art will almost definitely guaranteetheir work, according to Vila. Don’t just askif they have a guarantee, ask how problemswill be remedied or repaired if somethingshould happen to a piece.4. Check the finish. It should draw lightthat plays on the wood fibers, enhancingbeauty, not just reflecting off it.5. Learn how to maintain the finish.6. Know your wood. For example, somethingthat is made of melina, people may stainit and say it is guanacaste wood.7. Make sure to use wood in compliancewith forest management practices.8. Make sure whoever makes the pieceunderstands completely what you want9. If you don’t have an exact designplanned, make sure you bring measurementsof your floor plan when talking to the craftsman.10. Depending on the size and complexityof the piece, most furniture takes on average amonth to complete, according to Morrison.11. Pay a deposit, but never full price.12. Check furniture’s joints to ensure theywill last for generations. Ask how the joints aredone. Check to see if any glue has squeezedout of a joint, whether there are gaps orragged edges at the joints; these are not goodsigns.

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