The West has long captured the imagination. From the historic departure of the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804 to the tens of thousands who braved the Oregon Trail in the 1840s and 50s, Americans have been enthralled with the adventure and allure of the American West. As stories of these early pioneers made their way back to the metropolitan East, a sense of what the West was, a “western style,” began to develop. Then, in 1883, in Omaha, Nebraska, William F. Buffalo Bill Cody presented the first Wild West show and set it into motion an infatuation with the “Wild West” that would last more than 25 years.
Though western style was quite popular at the turn of the century, interior western style would have been almost indefinable. In the early twentieth century, western homes were furnished in mission oak or by mail order.2 It is also evident when traveling through small western towns, the prevailing home style was reflective of eastern design styles – Victorian and craftsmen. Although the West, as an American ideal, has long been a place calling to mind thoughts of freedom and independence, and being surrounded by the beauty and wonder of nature, true western style emerged with Thomas Molesworth and the Shoshone Furniture Company, defining it for the world.
Forty years later, J. Mike Patrick and a small group of craftsmen from Cody, Wyoming, created the Western Design Conference. That show would grow from a small group of artisans to a world-class conference – showcasing the absolute best western decorative artists and once again, making western design relevant to the world.
Western Design Conference co-founder and visionary, J. Mike Patrick described western design as, “casual, warm, friendly, utilitarian, and makes wonderful use of materials and native traditions of the west. Above all, Western design is quintessentially American.”3 Elements found west of the Mississippi, such as lodgepole pine and fir, leathers, antlers, horns, and other natural materials, are commonly thought of as key components of western style. These materials were traditionally used in western furniture and clothing, and are still in use today. In addition to those traditional elements, today’s craftsmen and designers also incorporate steel, iron, copper, and stone into the list of materials used.
Beyond the use of specific materials, designers often incorporate images and accents to elicit thoughts of the West and its natural settings. These can be as subtle as the inlay of a star at the center point of a coffee table, or as overt, as a stain glass display of a cowboy bar scene on the head of a piano.
Whether through the materials used, images incorporated, or other unique elements included in their pieces of functional art, designers of western style aim to evoke the West. From Thomas Molesworth to today’s craftsmen, western design leaves those watching and participating in this style with a lasting sense of independence, freedom, and being surrounded by the beauty and wonder of nature.
The aim of this perspective is to examine and celebrate the rich history and talent of these artisans and to outline their story – from the beginning of the western studio furniture movement, its quieter years in the 1960s and 70s, through the wave and excitement of the Western Design Conference and Cody High Style, to today’s uncertain future, and to the possibilities of what may lay ahead.