While Siggins and Covert were busy building their style of western furniture, another builder from Cody and the assistant director of the renowned Buffalo Bill Historical Center were both taking steps that would eventually lead to the Western Design Conference and forever change the face of western style.
Wally Reber spent thirty years working at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, most of those years as the associate director with several occasions as the interim director. Through those years, Reber was responsible for many aspects of the museum, but undoubtedly his two biggest contributions to the arena of decorative arts was as curator of the Thomas Molesworth exhibition in 1989, and his idea for the Switchback Ranch Purchase Award to be held in a permanent collection at the museum.
In 1987, Reber came up with the idea for doing a Molesworth Exhibition based on his early impression of the furniture he saw when he arrived in Cody, “When we got to Cody in ’81, I saw a lot of funky furniture beyond poles being shoved together, it has some style to it.” 29 In initial discussions, the exhibition was to be held in the mezzanine of the museum’s large center hall. However, Peter Hassrick, who was then the museum director and curator for the Whitney Gallery, said that Reber would have the entire main floor to put on the exhibition. This dramatically changed the scope of the show. As the curator of the exhibition, Reber was wearing many hats – doing the photography, designing the exhibition, and writing for the catalog – “Wow, this has changed a lot.” 30 The exhibition had shifted from a small show to a large scale exposition that would draw in over 400 people at its opening.
In 1989, the museum opened the exhibition, titled Interior West: The Craft and Style of Thomas Molesworth . It was an absolute success. Along with Paul Fees, who was the assistant curator for the exhibition, the pair put together an excellent show – one that would garner national attention. The show sparked interest in western style studio furniture, not only in Cody and the region, but also in metropolitan markets like New York and San Francisco. Those craftsmen who were building “cowboy furniture” in Cody and throughout the West were poised to take advantage of this growing opportunity. One of those craftsmen was J. Mike Patrick.
A fourth generation resident of Cody, Mike grew up western. He spent his early childhood on his grandfather’s 50,000-acre Diamond Bar cattle ranch and later roaming the 30,000-acre Belknap Ranch after his parents purchased the historic homestead when he was in the third grade. 31 Ranching was in the Patrick’s blood and that was the obvious path for Mike as well.
After a family trip to Kenya, Mike was offered a job to manage a 50,000-acre cattle ranch. He accepted the job and stayed there for a year and a half. Mike returned home after his time in Africa and married Virginia Livingston.3 2 The two tried their hand at ranching in Wyoming for the next ten years. Ranching, however, can be a tough business and Mike would have to supplement their winter income working construction for his brother, Nic, building small pieces of furniture, and working on other jobs in the area. After giving the family business more than a decade’s worth of effort, Mike decided to shift to furniture.
In the mid-1980s, Mike was working as a cabinetmaker in Seattle, but he had a young family back in Cody and the distance began to be a strain on Mike and his family. 33 Several years earlier, Mike had built a desk out of eighty-year-old windbreak that he had torn down from his family’s ranch. Though he had grown up building, putting things together out of necessity, this was the first time that he built something around the quality of the material itself. The desk had been a revelation and so, after moving back to Cody, Mike, and his wife, Virginia, started their furniture company, New West, in 1988.
After two years of building under their new label, and on the heels of the Molesworth exhibition at the museum, a piece in New West’s catalog caught the eye of a design editor of the New York Times .3 5 Mike had created a bed frame called the Teton Bed , which was featured in the June 1, 1989 lifestyle section of the Times . That article gave the Patricks instant credibility, as New West was most certainly collaboration between Mike and Virginia.
In 1990, the growing community of western craftsmen in Cody received another boost with an article in the April 5 Home & Garden section of the New York Times . The article, titled How the West Was Done by Patricia Leigh Brown, summarized the history of Molesworth and his legacy in Cody. It also highlighted the craftsmen in Cody at the time – Ken Siggins, Mike Patrick, Jimmy Covert, and Paul Hindman. Coupled with the exhibition, the article put Cody and these craftsmen on the map. Clients from coast to coast began calling, and the butterfly wings that create the hurricane, had begun to flutter. Though Hindman’s health was beginning to decline, Siggins, Patrick, and Covert would all take part in the first Master Artisans Guild show, a year later.
As the zeal for western studio furniture grew, Mike and Virginia added employees to meet the increasing demand for quality pieces. One standout New West employee was John Gallis from Long Island, New York. Gallis would only stay with New West for a short time before starting his own Norseman Design, an award-winning company that is still thriving today. This is what Cody represented at the time, a small western town that was cultivating a unique colony of talented craftsmen. Patrick could see Cody’s and the industry’s potential, and knew something big was afoot.
At the 1990 Best of the Southwest Show in Dallas, Mike met fellow craftsmen and frame maker, Monte Scholten. That meeting was the spark for what would later become the Western Design Conference. In January 1991, the two got together again and laid out the blueprint for the Master Artisans Guild. That September, the Master Artisans Guild held the first furniture show in Cody.
Though it was the seed for a conference that would grow to over a hundred exhibitors, the first Master Artisans Guild show was a small affair. It was held in the Governor’s Room at the Irma Hotel in downtown Cody with five exhibitors: Mike Patrick, Ken Siggins, Jimmy Covert, Wolf and Lily Schlein, textile artisans from Santa Fe, and Monte Scholten. The show was held the same week as the Patron’s Ball and the first Buffalo Bill Art Show and Sale with the craftsmen, trying to capitalize on the wealthy patrons that were in town that week. The show had no catalog and received little press coverage – the only coverage of the show in the Cody Enterprise in the entire month of September that year was a two by two inch photo of Monty Scholten examining a piece of furniture with a fellow craftsmen. However, despite its lack of coverage, the show had enough success that the guild agreed to hold another show the following year.
The show in 1992 was again in the Governor’s Room at the Irma. It was only slightly larger than the ’91 show, but did include Cody craftsmen, Lester Santos, who had been previously been working at Sweetwater Ranch Furniture. Once more, the show was held the week of the Patron’s Ball and Buffalo Bill Art Show and Sale, setting a pattern that would continue through all of the Western Design Conferences and Cody High Style shows.
Though both shows had mild success, the Master Artisans Guild, led by Mike, wanted the show to grow to something much bigger. As Mike wrote in the first Western Design Conference Catalog – it was decreed at the 1992 furniture show at High Point, North Carolina, western design was to be the fashionable style for the rest of the 1990’s. Mike knew that the wave was building and had the vision that Cody’s furniture show would have its place on a national stage.