Cocobolo desks are highly sought-after desks made of exotic cocobolo wood from Central America. Collectors revere this tropical hardwood for its attractive colors and expressive grains. While predominantly brown in color, common accent grain colors include yellow, red, purple, and even black. Designers especially love cocobolo wood for its high sheen which mimics the look of lacquer. Cocobolo’s unique visual characteristics, paired with its limited availability, have catapulted cocobolo furniture’s appeal. It now ranks among some of the most expensive in the world and bears a price tag similar to other exotic woods like rosewood. Among the most famous designers to have worked extensively with cocobolo wood was Don S. Shoemaker, a celebrated Mexican furniture designer who applied the wood to organic modernist designs in the 1960s and 70s. Today, some of Shoemaker’s most iconic designs can command upwards of $10,000 dollars. 

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Arts and crafts style office with cocobolo style wood desk and leather wing chair
Photo by Stephen Kent Johnson / OTTO / Designed by Shawn Henderson

What is Cocobolo Wood?

Cocobolo wood — also known as Mexican rosewood or rosewood from Central America — is indigenous to the area between Mexico and Panama. It is considered to be a true rosewood. Its density is only eclipsed by the African Blackwood. 

Artisans have long been enamored with Cocobolo wood’s workability and attractive colors, which accounts for its common appearance in furniture design. Because of its renowned sound-bouncing and absorption properties, it’s also a popular choice among string instrument makers.

Cocobolo wood is beloved for its rich, multi-hued coloring, and expressive grains. Right after cutting, the wood showcases a vibrant swirling pattern of rainbow-colored lines. Over time, the colors mute, darkening into a deep, even hue. The wood is also notable for its scent, which is often described as being assertively floral.

Library study with antique wallpaper and cocobolo style desk with leather desk chair
Photo by Stephen Kent Johnson / OTTO / Designed by Ryan Lawson

Is Cocobolo Furniture Rare? 

Cocobolo trees only grow in a particular region of the world, and cocobolo furniture is highly sought after, resulting in cocobolo furniture being fairly rare. In fact, in the early 20th century, the demand helped expedite the construction of the Panama Canal so that Central American suppliers could ship Cocobolo to the rest of the world. 

Due to some controversy that exists around the toxicity of cocobolo wood, many craftspeople also refuse to work with it, heightening cocobolo pieces’ rarity. Issues regarding toxicity center around the wood’s dust (meaning it’s only hazardous when cut or sanded). As opposed to other types of wood, cocobolo creates an abnormally large volume of dust. By nature, large amounts of dust pose a health risk, which has led to cocobolo wood earning a disclaimer. 

Another reason cocobolo pieces are so expensive and rare is the cocobolo tree’s status as a “vulnerable” species according to The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In an effort to ensure the tree’s survival, the Coocobolo trade is heavily monitored by many countries’ governments. 

Dark wood Cocobolo desk in bright office with white shelves
Photo by Björn Wallander / OTTO / Design by Foley and Cox

Who Are Some of the Most Famous Cocobolo Furniture Designers?

Numerous makers have worked with cocobolo wood, but perhaps none are more famous than Mexican designer and woodworder Don S. Shoemaker. Born in Nebraska, Shoemaker honed his design skills at the Art Institute of Chicago before traveling to Mexico on his honeymoon in the late 1940s and falling in love with the country. Soon after returning to the U.S., Shoemaker and his new wife decided to make an official move, selecting Santa Maria de Guido, Mexico as their new home base. 

In Mexico, Shoemaker became a rare horticulture hobbyist, eventually developing a keen interest in the region’s native tropical woods. Fusing his newfound passion with his design background, Shoemaker founded Señal S.A., a furniture manufacturing company that produced primarily Mid-Century Modernist interpretations of traditional Mexican furnishings. 

With more than one hundred employees at its height, the company produced everything from wood accent chairs and desks to cheeseboards and salt and pepper shakers. The company worked primarily with Mexican rosewood, although it did work with other dark woods like walnut. 

In addition to mass-produced items, the company created limited bespoke pieces, including the famed Cocobolo “Diamond Line Desk.” Famously used by Mexican news anchor Jacobo Zabludovsky, the desk features a half-octagonal-shaped top inlaid with a diamond pattern and a base formed by two connecting chevron-shaped legs. Adding to its cache, only 25 Diamond Line Desks were ever produced. 

The majority of Señal S.A. furniture pieces include a maker’s tag, confirming it as an original. Maker’s tags can range from small gold foil stickers to more formal-looking black-colored placards with gold inscriptions. 

Light green painted living room with parquet chevron wood floors, magenta velvet sofa, Danish settee and chairs, and rosewood cocobolo style sideboard
Photo courtesy of living4media / Möller, Cecilia

More Mid-Century Modern Rosewood Designs

If you’re enamored by the look of a Don Shoemaker Cocobolo “Diamond Line Desk,” but you’re not ready to drop five figures on one, you’ll be delighted to know that they are plenty of other ways to get your rosewood fix.   

Many Danish Modernist designers worked heavily with rosewood. In fact, in Mid 20th Century Danish design, rosewood was probably second only to teak wood. Some notable Danish designers who worked largely with rosewood include Erik Buch, Johannes Andersen, Kai Kristiansen, and Niels Koefoed

For a piece that matches up to the “Diamond Line Desk’s” icon status, consider an Eames Lounger featuring a rosewood shell. The original Eames Lounger, which debuted in 1956, featured a shell that was crafted of no less than five layers of Brazilian rosewood. When an embargo was placed on Brazilian rosewood in 1992, the Eames Lounger’s production was temporarily halted, further enhancing these chairs’ rarity. 

Other American Mid-Century Modern designers who worked with rosewood include Florence Knoll, Edward Wormley, and Harvey Probber. For a cost-conscious approach, consider a piece from the Kent Coffey “Perspecta” line. While the line is primarily crafted of walnut, a number of Perspecta pieces feature sleek, aerodynamic-looking rosewood pulls. The touch of rosewood gives these pieces an elevated look, while primarily-walnut construction keeps their price points accessible.   

Lead image by Björn Wallander / OTTO / Design by Foley and Cox


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July 25, 2023

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