Why did (Better Call) Saul want a Cocobolo Desk?

Cocobolo Desk and Zig-Zag Chair by Don Shoemaker as seen in Better Call Saul Cocobolo Desk and Zig-Zag Chair by Don Shoemaker. Sold for $2,500 via Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) (October 2013).

Immediately recognisable thanks to its lustrous and marble-like quality, cocobolo is a wood like no other that gives finesse, fragrance and a shimmering finish that elevates tables, sideboards and even statues beyond expectations of other wood. Thanks to the prominent feature of a cocobolo desk on hit TV drama Better Call Saul, international interest in cocobolo has never been greater. 

Chess set made from Cocobolo wood

Cocobolo chess pieces (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Made from the heartwood of a medium-sized tropical tree found in Central America, cocobolo furniture is prized for its deep and glowing appearance, as well as its scarcity. Patience is a virtue with the slow growing cocobolo because, as the tree ages the tone darkens, giving furniture made from cocobolo a deep and intoxicating shimmer.

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This is perfectly exemplified by Don S. Shoemaker’s Diamante Table, a cocobolo desk that offsets the rich and delicate tones of the wood against the sharp and modern styling of the table and legs. In fact, Shoemaker was inspired to use the precious timber when in the late 1940s he fell in love with Mexico on his honeymoon and later moved there with his wife. What began as a small factory in the late 1950s, known as Señal S.A, blossomed and the cocobolo pieces are highly sought after, particularly the desks.

Diamante Cocobolo Table by Don S. Shoemaker.

Diamante Table by Don S. Shoemaker. Sold MXN75,000 via Morton Subastas (September 2018).

That Cocobolo Desk

Having been spotted in the TV series Better Call Saul, cocobolo desks are in the spotlight once again.  Their broad sides offer an exciting canvas for the wood’s expressive grains and attractive colors, while the cantilevered zig zag chair disguises its complicated construction and instead emphasizes its depth of color with dark tones giving way to occasional flashes of the lighter, creamy yellow sapwood of the tree. The wood’s magnetic appeal is clear to see. 

Delicate shades

The wood’s magnetism was also used to great effect by Joaquim Tenreiro, who was among the leading furniture designers and visual artists in mid-20th century Brazil. For his dining table he paired the rich tones of the cocobolo legs and support with a cooling complimentary marble table top, which proved very popular when it went to auction in 2015.

Visual impact

This visual impact of the wood also makes it an ideal material for statement pieces of furniture that draw the eye, no matter their size. This is certainly the case when it comes to Michael Coffey’s pirouette side table, which blurs the lines between carpentry and sculpture as the stylishness and functionality of the piece is matched only by the lustre of the wood.

Pirouette Cocobolo Wood Side Table by Michael Coffey, circa 1975.

Pirouette Cocobolo Wood Side Table by Michael Coffey, circa 1975. Passed $3,000 – $5,000 via Christie’s (September 2006).

Similarly, the scene-stealing African Chess Set with 32 African animal figurines in cast bronze is set against the simple design of the cocobolo wood pedestal, handcrafted by Jim Hessel of Gresham from Oregon.   

African cocobolo Chess Set by Rip Caswell

African Chess Set by Rip Caswell. Sold for $5,500 via O’Gallerie (October 2011).

In fact, the simpler the design, the greater the depth and color of the cocobolo grain visible. A series of bowls by William Hunter perfectly exemplify this. Firstly, the smooth surface of the Sunrise Iris bowl that appeared at Sotheby’s in 2013 provides the perfect vehicle to showcase the swirling storm of grain that moves from dark to light tones and provides a new perspective from every angle. 

Shimmering tone

Equally, Hunter’s Autumn Flutes from 1991 features turned cocobolo and is inspired by wind-sculpted-sands. And, while your eye is drawn across the bowl by the diagonal carvings, the radiant and shimmering tone of the almost stone-like reflection of the wood still manages to sparkle.

But, for a truly spectacular example of cocobolo in its finest artistic form, then all eyes should focus on Wharton Esherick’s engaging sculpture. Heralded by the national art and design community as the “Dean of American Craftsmen” and posthumously awarded the Craftsmanship Medal by The American Institute of Architects, his “Essie”/”Rebecca” statue from 1933 exudes all the elegance of its smooth and sleek design, which is exaggerated by the sheen of the sparkling cocobolo.

Essie/Rebecca cocobolo figurative sculpture by Wharton Esherick, circa 1933

Essie/Rebecca by Wharton Esherick, circa 1933. Sold for $123,750 via Freeman’s (November 2014).

The sculpture was exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1934 and with a pedigree like that it would surely command a central position in any room.

As interest in cocobolo furniture (especially cocobolo desks) grows, carved cocobolo pieces coming to auction are commanding ever higher price tags. Perhaps you stumbled upon this article looking for your very own cocobolo desk, but hopefully we have opened your eyes to the rich and exciting possibilities of cocobolo.

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