Story and photos by Ken Druse
Recently I’ve been photographing examples of concrete faux bois (fake wood), garden art that simulates wooden benches, tables, birdbaths, containers, and ornaments. Much of it is French, made from about 1890 to 1910, its heyday ending by 1930. Antique French faux bois is generating a lot of interest lately; well-known collectors have driven prices up, and inferior garden furniture in this style is coming in from China.
I also look for structures in what is known as trabajo rústico—“rough work” by Mexican artists. Mexican concrete in the U.S. was produced by a handful of people, and popular around limestone pits in San Antonio, and in Michigan industrialists’ lake estates. Unlike the pieces manufactured in France in the late 19th century, trabajo rústico pieces made between 1925 and 1950 were unique works of folk art (and thus harder to knock off). This stuff is little known and most of it has disintegrated.
A bit of history: As early as 1840, tastemaker Andrew Jackson Downing recommended building outdoor benches, tables, and structures like gazebos out of branches and tree trunks. Downing’s friend Frederick Law Olmsted and his collaborator Calvert Vaux specified similar elements in 1854, for New York’s Central Park. Such pieces have a short life and regularly must be remade.
Concrete reinforced with metal rod and wire (ferrocement) was patented in 1867 by Joseph Monier, a French gardener who exhibited tubs and pots at the Paris Exhibition that year. French arourtisans soon recognized that concrete, while moist or semi-hardened, could be carved and molded to simulate wood. Victorian faux bois birdbaths, stump stools, tables, chairs and even tiered fountains came from France a hundred years ago.
Structures of concrete faux bois are found in public parks around the world—Japan, Turkey, Argentina. In the U.S., such pieces are the work of Mexican artisans who, from the 1920s through the ’40s, came north for employment and to escape the ravages of the 1910 revolution. South Texas was not only close by, but also rich in limestone, the principal ingredient in cement. Mexican surgeon Dr. Aureliano Urrutia immigrated to San Antonio in 1914 to become a prominent member of the community. He built an elaborate residence for himself called Miraflores, which included nine works by Dionicio Rodríguez, the pre-eminent master of reinforced concrete landscape art. Word spread about Rodríguez’s remarkable constructions: umbrella-like shelters with talapa roofs mimicking straw thatch, a 125-foot-long fence with rails in imitation of twenty species of trees, a now-historic streetcar stop that was a gift of Charles Baumberger, founder of the Alamo Portland and Roman Cement Co.
Rodríguez worked through the Depression and until his death in 1955. His creations stand in Little Rock, Arkansas (a working mill featured in the opening scenes of the 1939 movie Gone With The Wind), and as far north as Detroit and Chicago. One of Rodríguez’s collaborators was Maximo Cortés, who worked with him on structures for San Antonio’s Brackenridge Park, which stands on the site of the original cement quarry. Perhaps the most remarkable of all, the Wooden Bridge, is among the few constructions signed by Rodríguez. Built in 1925, the curved bridge spanning the headwaters of the San Antonio River resembles a wooden pergola and includes 33 pairs of tree-trunk pillars supporting horizontal members, with a floor of faux hewn lumber.
“Surfaces of crosscut and hewn logs, tree trunks, logs and branches with heavily textured and peeling bark, knotholes, stalactites, insect borings, and patches of lichen” is how Rodriguez’s work is described in a new book by Patsy Pittman Light, Capturing Nature: The Cement Sculptures of Dionicio Rodríguez. Unlike most of the European pieces, the Rodriguez works are in living color, tinted with pigments made from recipes that remain secret.
Today, his great-nephew Carlos Cortes, son of Rodríguez’s collaborator Maximo Cortes, produces furniture, containers, works of art, and even bridges in his outdoor studio in a neighborhood near the Alamo. Inspired by his relatives’ work and by nature, he reproduces the textures and colors of aging cut branches and trunks for his natural-looking pieces.
Cortes’s medium is steel-reinforced concrete. People say that concrete “dries,” but more precisely it cures; water is the catalyst that produces heat to slowly harden the material. Before it has hardened, Carlos Cortes begins to carve the details that gives grey concrete he texture of wood, using tools he’s fashioned from forks, steel brushes, nails, and knives. Concrete is often dyed before it is troweled in place, but the San Antonio artisans found that coloring damp finished pieces produces more natural results.
Even in its south Texas homeland, trabajo rústico is little known: until a decade or so ago, it was too familiar to notice. Only when the concrete bus shelters, park benches, arches, and staircases began to receive landmark status was a revival possible.
Online exclusive: Learn how to build your own faux bois planter.Published in: Old-House Interiors January/February 2009