Ernest Thompson Handcrafts Fine Furnishings and Cabinetry for Over 50 Years

Founded in New Mexico, the company's handcrafted furniture pieces are timeless
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A standard design customized to the client’s specifications, the Spanish-influenced Padre Banco features intricate carvings and two different types of spindles. “We’re trying to keep the New Mexico furniture building tradition alive,” says owner Mike Godwin. | Photos courtesy Ernest Thompson

For nearly five decades, the builders at Ernest Thompson have made handcrafted furnishings using time-tested techniques, such as mortise-and-tenon joinery and French dovetailed drawers, carving and chiseling by hand rather than relying exclusively on the sort of machines often employed today.

The attention to detail—and the gorgeous, often-ornate designs—inspired municipal bond traders Mike Godwin and his late wife, Doreen, to buy the company from its namesake in 1990 and relocate from Manhattan to Albuquerque—despite their utter lack of experience in the furniture business. “I appreciated the handcrafted nature of real, tangible things that you can put your fingers on,” Godwin says.

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Treated to highlight the grain, a hand-carved piece made of standing dead-wood (also known as beetle-kill pine) looks like it might have been manufactured hundreds of years ago. 

They quickly learned that the longtime employees were the company’s special sauce. Extended families work side-by-side on the floor; it’s an unfailingly cooperative, happy environment. Three of those employees are still with the company more than 30 years later. “There are a lot of moving parts, but it was a perfect fit,” Godwin says. “It was a pretty easy business to wrap your arms around and love.”

Since then, Ernest Thompson acquired Sombraje, Taos Furniture, Southwest Spanish Craftsmen and Santa Fe Custom Works, inheriting stacks and stacks of hand-drawn designs that date back to the 1960s. Stored in a tall lawyer’s filing cabinet in Godwin’s office, the renderings continue to inspire his designs. “We’re carrying on a tradition that has existed in New Mexico since the 1600s,” he says.

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Senior builder and loyal employee for more than two decades, Ever Manjarrez puts the finishing touches on an ornate pine Cordova chest.

Under the Godwins’ stewardship, the company expanded its offerings from furniture to cabinetry and closets, taking on large commercial, residential and hospitality projects, such as the Four Seasons Presidential Suite in Washington, D.C.—a project with a hard deadline: the inauguration. While Godwin enjoys and appreciates such jobs, “It’s the day-to-day routine of working with individual customers that I like the best,” he says.

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The side table was hand-carved by skilled craftsperson Rachel Walsh, who carefully selects the perfect blades from her extensive collection.

And while Ernest Thompson is known for its historic designs, the company also builds custom contemporary pieces using the same methods. It’s not just about tradition or marketing, says Godwin, noting that one can not only feel but see the result. Hand-planed pine, for example, creates a finish that “almost sparkles like diamonds. It gives the finished wood so much character.”

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Such collaborations yield not only heirloom-quality furnishings but also enduring friendships, Godwin says, noting there’s nothing like watching the joy in a client’s face when they behold the result. Seeing his loyal employees’ efforts come to fruition is equally gratifying. In fact, though he spent the bulk of his time behind the scenes and recently relocated to Denver, he makes a beeline to the workshop when he visits, relishing in the jovial atmosphere and the scent of sawdust.

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Inspired by a vintage design, the intricately carved Del Mar bed by Ernest Thompson perfectly combines form and function. “Many of these patterns have been passed down through the generations,” says company owner Mike Godwin.

Furniture is a fashion business, Godwin explains, noting that changing tastes drove many of his competitors out of business. Indeed, of the dozens of furniture makers in the New Mexico Furniture Guild when he bought the company, only a handful remain. That makes the work they do even more important. “It’s a great niche, because there are no large companies doing this style of furniture anymore,” he says. “I take pride in the fact that we’re the keepers of the flame.”

Categories: Furnishings & Accessories