southwestern design q&a

twiggy glamour

This winter, the pros demystify salt cedar home accents, find fabric for your Southwestern home, and separate stucco fact from fiction.

Sourcing salt cedar
Q: When in Santa Fe recently, I was very taken with the cabinet doors made with tamarisk branches. Can you tell me if these types of doors have a special name and where they could be obtained? —Dorothy Hockenberg, Des Moines, Iowa

A: Panels of closely spaced branches supported by wooden frames represent a traditional New Mexican style that endures today. “It’s similar to latilla ceilings,” says Hillary Riggs, the Santa Fe artist who in 1981 with her late husband, Graham Nugent, developed a brand of branch-covered shutters and furniture called Sombraje. Sombraje (meaning “branch-covered screen”) is now owned by Ernest Thompson Cabinets and Furniture and encompasses shutters, valances, cabinetry, furniture, and elements such as doors, tabletops, and chair backs.

Pieces are made with tree branches grown along streams in northern New Mexico. The labor-intensive technique entails hand-picking, drying, cutting, and hand-placing branches into panels, according to Doreen Godwin, co-owner of Ernest Thompson Cabinets and Furniture, which has locations in Albuquerque and Scottsdale, Arizona. Different types of branches are used within the pieces, Godwin explains. Salt cedar, or tamarisk, has an intense red or maroon color. Cottonwood is gray, but when peeled, the branches are blond colored. Willow is muted red.

Riggs describes Sombraje as integral to Santa Fe style architecture. “It was a part of the whole look,” she says. After Riggs and Nugent made their first salt cedar shutters for a friend, Nugent entered a screen in a show, won a prize, and sold the screen, Riggs recalls. They took their products to fairs on the Plaza and later opened a store on Canyon Road. “It was perfect for the architecture and the time,” Riggs says.

To enhance the pieces’ creativity, Riggs incorporated colors of the New Mexico landscape. Over time, she developed a range of colors and twig patterns.

Sombraje shutters and furniture have held ongoing appeal inside and outside of New Mexico. Godwin notes the pieces’ popularity on both coasts, as well as in the mountains. After selling Sombraje to Ernest Thompson, Riggs focused on carved furniture and started her gallery, Quimera. (See Su Casa’s Winter 2007 cover story “Line of sight” to learn more.)

Shutters are the most popular items in the Sombraje collection, according to Godwin. The branch-covered shutters go inside the house as window treatments, filtering light and creating a beautiful effect within the home. Because they aren’t easily damaged by the sun, the shutters are a long-lasting option for Southwestern homes, Godwin adds.

Many decisions go into a Sombraje piece, including the type of furniture or window treatment, the finish, the material, and the twigs’ color. Beyond the natural branch shades, individual twigs can be painted.
Ernest Thompson has a full line of cabinetry, which can coordinate with matching Sombraje drawers and doors. In a room with standard cabinets and Sombraje, the twig panels stand out as accents—a rustic alternative to glass-front cabinetry.

Pricing for Sombraje pieces involves the size of the area covered with twigs. The effect adds approximately $300 to $500 to the price of a standard piece, Godwin says. Shutters for a small window opening could cost around $300, while a piece of furniture could start around $1,000.

Those interested in Sombraje can visit an Ernest Thompson showroom or order by phone.

Advice from Doreen Godwin, Ernest Thompson Cabinets and Furniture, and Hillary Riggs, Quimera Gallery

Q: My husband would like to build some cabinet door panels using salt cedar twigs. Do you have any ideas for suppliers of such a material? —Lindsey Howe, Lemoore, California

A: Adobe Building Supply in Albuquerque carries salt cedar twigs seasonally. According to Nancy Black, salt cedar starts turning red in March, and the best time to purchase the twigs is when they are fresh, approximately from the end of March through August. The twigs are more maneuverable when they are fresh, Black says, but you can work with them when they are dried, too. The twigs are sold in bundles, and you can contact the store for specific information about pricing. Adobe Building Supply ships orders to out-of-state customers.

Advice from Nancy Black, Adobe Building Supply

Fabric of the Southwest
Q: I am trying to locate a fabric retailer for high-end Southwestern fabrics. Which dealers or stores do you recommend? —Susan Samuels, Alexandria, Virginia

A: For authentic Southwestern fabrics, Susan Westbrook of Susan Westbrook Interiors suggests revivals from museum collections, such as the Museum of New Mexico’s collection of fabrics. In 1998 the Museum of New Mexico Foundation established a licensing program in which manufacturers develop products, and a portion of the proceeds benefits the museum. (For more information about licensed products, visit

Textile manufacturers Brunschwig & Fils ( and Kravet ( offer upholstery-grade fabrics through the Museum of New Mexico collection, and Andover Fabrics ( offers fabric for home sewing projects. The collection is inspired by textiles from the Museum of International Folk Art and the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture in Santa Fe, says Pamela Kelly, director of licensing for the Museum of New Mexico Foundation.

To purchase the fabric, contact a licensed interior designer, who can obtain the products through the manufacturer, Kelly says. Museum of New Mexico fabrics are available worldwide.

Westbrook adds that Arteriors in Albuquerque (10655 Montgomery Boulevard NE) and Foreign Traders in Santa Fe (202 Galisteo Street) offer fabrics. Arteriors carries upholstery and bedding fabrics—individuals can view samples at the store, and Arteriors orders the material.

Foreign Traders in Santa Fe sells fabrics for upholstery, drapery, and bedspreads, which are ordered through the store, according to sales manager Carole Cascio. Styles range from Southwestern, with distinctive colors and patterns of the region, to contemporary.

Advice from Susan Westbrook, Susan Westbrook Interiors; the Museum of New Mexico Foundation; Arteriors; and Foreign Traders

Stucco fact and fiction
Q: My six-year-old house has the original stucco that is chipping in the foundation areas. I was planning to restucco the whole house, but a painter told me that stucco cement will not hold well on the original stucco and that it will easily crack and chip. Others also told me that I should never paint on stucco, yet all my neighbors had their houses painted. Should I paint or restucco the house?

A: There is nothing wrong with stuccoing over original stucco, says Rick Semones, owner of Semones and Son Construction in Albuquerque. Cracks are probably occurring at the foundation because the foundation has moved. According to Semones, restuccoing is the preferred way to fix the cracks. Stucco is a porous material, and therefore it absorbs water. When you paint over stucco, you trap this moisture rather than letting it escape through the breathable stucco surface. (The house itself is protected from water with a vapor barrier.)

Whether you choose to paint or restucco the house, repairing the chipped or cracked areas first remains an important step, Semones says. “A stucco contractor can and should perform the repairs.”

The stucco should be cleaned with a power wash, and the areas around doors and windows should be properly sealed. Repairs will involve chipping away the old loose stucco and patching it with a base coat. Once the loose, chipped, and cracked stucco is repaired, the contractor will apply new stucco to the house. The contractor can use a product that helps the new stucco adhere to the original stucco, Semones adds.

Advice from Rick Semones, Semones and Son Construction

Expert contact info:
Sourcing salt cedar: Doreen Godwin, co-owner, Ernest Thompson Cabinets and Furniture, Albuquerque, 505/344-1994,
Hillary Riggs, Quimera Gallery, Santa Fe, 505/955-0998,,
Nancy Black, Adobe Building Supply, Albuquerque, 505/828-9800,
Fabric of the Southwest: Susan Westbrook, owner, Susan Westbrook Interiors, Corrales, New Mexico, 505/898-2484,
Pamela Kelly, director of licensing, Museum of New Mexico Foundation, Santa Fe, 505/982-6366,
Arteriors, Albuquerque, 505/298-2228,
Carole Cascio, sales manager, Foreign Traders, Santa Fe, 505/983-6441,
Stucco fact and fiction: Rick Semones, owner, Semones and Son Construction, Albuquerque, 505/244-0873.