The Molesworth Exhibition, J. Mike Patrick, and the Beginning of the Western Design Conference

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.

Thomas Molesworth and the Origins of Modern Western Style

Though Thomas Molesworth is, for many people, the craftsmen most identified with western studio furniture, one of the first names to become associated with western decorative arts was Edward Bohlin. Swedish born, Bohlin came to America in 1900 and moved to Cody in 1917 after working in Montana and on several ranches in the area. Established in Cody, he opened his first saddle shop, and after honing his craft there for several years, moved to Hollywood where his skills in leather and silver led him to become the “saddle maker to the stars.” 5 Over the years, Bohlin’s pieces have inspired countless artisans. His pieces are still collected, and being used and worn today.

Counter to the popularity of Edward Bohlin’s saddles and tack, western furniture did not gain immediate and early recognition. Towns with train service ordered furniture from back East or through catalogs. Those towns and ranches, whose isolation made ordering furniture impractical, had it build by local log builders and ranch hands. Early “pole” furniture came from the use of lodgepole pines and was first and foremost functional, with little to no emphasis on artistic integrity. As western furniture started to gain popularity and skilled artisans garnered recognition, they added aesthetic elements to their designs. Many early makers of western furniture – Eagle Rathe Furniture of Dean, Montana, John Stark in Seeley Lake, Montana, Kranenbergs of Jackson, Wyoming, Uptown Furniture in Sheridan, Wyoming, and Thomas Molesworth’s Shoshone Furniture Company in Cody, Wyoming – all had distinct construction techniques and decorative elements, but they were also influenced by and imitated one another. 6 It was this confluence of style and timing that would ultimately lead to the success and recognition of Thomas Molesworth and the Shoshone Furniture Company.

The son of a wealthy Methodist minister, Thomas Molesworth, was born in Kansas in 1890. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to South Dakota, and then again to Forsyth, Montana. In his youth, he became an avid horseman and developed a strong connection to the West, so much so that he wanted to become a painter and enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago in 1908. This was the time of the Arts and Craft movement. Arts and Crafts stood for traditional craftsmanship, using simple forms made in a factory setting using a hands-on approach. Molesworth’s arrival in 1908 Chicago was deeply rooted in the Craftsman style – most notably expressed in the Prairie School architectural designs of Frank Lloyd Wright and his contemporaries.

Molesworth would return to Montana after only one year at the Art Institute after his family finances took a downturn. However, that single year in Chicago would leave a lasting impact. Molesworth would later integrate into his own furnishings a style reminiscent of the Arts and Crafts movement, using simple forms, and a clean, solid style that would come to define his furniture.

After returning to Montana and working on his family’s ranch, Molesworth served in the Marine Corps in World War I. His tour completed, Molesworth returned to Montana where he worked, as a banker for five years then as the manager of the Rowe Furniture Company in Billings for seven years. In 1931, Molesworth, who now had a wife and two children, moved to Cody to open the Shoshone Furniture Company. Originally Shoshone Furniture Company was a retail furniture store; it sold products of various manufacturers and Molesworth’s previous jobs provided him with an excellent background to run the budding business. However, it is clear that Shoshone Furniture Company did not start as a furniture manufacturer. According to noted Molesworth historian, Terry Winchell, the first documentation of Molesworth, as a furniture maker, was in a 1933 Cody Stampede Rodeo program. The ad presented Shoshone Furniture Company, as a “maker of distinctive furniture for western homes.”

Like the western furniture makers before him, some of Molesworth’s earliest customers were area ranchers. Anthony Huber, who owned the Indian Head Ranch on the South Fork of the

Shoshone River, commissioned Molesworth to build a bedroom suite. E. V. Robertson, owner of the Hoodoo Ranch, also commissioned the Shoshone Furniture Company. Though these commissions were good for the growing business, the turning point for the Shoshone River Company was the commission to furnish Ranch A in Crook County, Wyoming.

Ranch A was owned by Moses Annenberg, a Russian immigrant who worked under William Randolph Hearst, had great success, and later purchased the Philadelphia Inquirer . Annenberg amassed tremendous wealth, and his retreat in Crook County was one of the finest log structures in America.1 2 The commission was an enormous opportunity for the Shoshone Furniture Company. Upon its completion, Molesworth had gained recognition in the elite circles that would become his future client list, the capital to grow his business, and the confidence to continue to develop and refine his style.

By 1936 Molesworth, who had a relationship with the Abercrombies, put Shoshone Furniture Company on a national market with representation by Abercrombie & Fitch of New York. This led to commissions with eastern clients looking to build second and third homes in the West. The Shoshone Furniture Company likely received its commission to furnish The Old Lodge, George Sumers’ ranch near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, from this exposure. 13 From that point going forward, the Shoshone Furniture Company would go on to be the premier furniture maker of western studio furniture.

As the Shoshone Furniture Company grew, it faced challenges from changes in clients’ tastes, shifts in the economic climate, and competition in the emerging western-inspired furniture market. One of Molesworth’s competitors came from another Cody-based furniture company.

Paul Hindman had worked for the Shoshone Furniture Company since its inception, along with his brother Don, who was one of Molesworth’s finest woodworkers. Paul then left Molesworth in 1939 and started the Wyoming Furniture Company, based off a commission to furnish the lobby of the Noble Hotel in Lander, Wyoming. In addition to the sting of his departure, Hindman’s Wyoming Furniture copied Molesworth’s unique style, a trespass that Molesworth would never forgive.

Despite the bad blood between the two local companies, Wyoming Furniture Company operated for many years. It was sold on several occasions, once to Pete Fritjofson, who had worked under Molesworth in the early 1950’s. Fritjofson, who mentored future craftsmen Ken Siggins for a short time, worked in Cody until his death in 1964. Hindman would eventually come to own Wyoming Furniture once more, but by the 1980s Hindman’s health was in decline and Wyoming Furniture Company closed its doors.

In addition to the Wyoming Furniture Company, Molesworth was also competing against craftsmen who had developed their local followings, but now had new opportunities to advertise in magazines, such as the Dude Rancher .1 6 However, despite increasing competition, Molesworth was able to remain not only one of the most influential western designers, but one of the most sought after. Molesworth adapted his designs to reflect the more modern tastes of a post-World War II America, and Shoshone Furniture Company remained popular until Molesworth retired, and the company closed its doors in 1958.

Molesworth’s legacy and unique design were recognized in 1989 in the exhibition, Interior West: The Craft and Style of Thomas Molesworth, at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody and in 1990 at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. 18 These shows, along with several articles in the New York Times, helped spark a revival of interest in western studio furniture that had not been seen since the 1930s. This wave of enthusiasm would last for nearly two decades, and Cody would be at its epicenter.

1960–Late 1980’s: Ken Siggins Carries the Torch

Of the craftsmen who have been part of Cody’s furniture making history since Thomas Molesworth, Ken Siggins best bridges the time from the 1960s to today’s modern style. A Cody native, Ken grew up on a guest ranch established by his grandfather in 1917. 19 After high school, Siggins moved to Los Angeles where he graduated from college and spent several years there, working various jobs and pursuing an acting career.2 0 Ken had started a young family and decided to return to Cody where he bought a small ranch on the South Fork of the Shoshone River. At his father’s suggestion, he started Triangle Z Ranch Furniture and began building ranch western style furniture in 1964. 21 Ken notes the distinction between his style and what he calls Molesworth’s “cowboy” western style in the 2007 Cody High Style catalog, “Triangle Z Ranch Furniture is a reserved, refined western style lacking a Hollywood flair.”

At that time, Thomas Molesworth had moved from Cody. Paul Hindman, who once had Siggins peel burls for him at a rate of $0.11 a piece, had moved on to operating heavy equipment, and Pete Fritjofson was taking only limited orders, and would pass away later that fall. 22

Around the same time period Ken met some guests, staying at his family’s ranch from the Harden Furniture Company in New York.2 3 The connection made, Siggins spent several weeks in New York, working on cherry Victorian style furniture.2 4 Although it was not western furniture, the experience would prove invaluable as Siggins learned about drying wood, finishing, and upholstery. As Siggins pointed out in the first Western Design Conference catalog in 1993, “This served me well, as I am one of the few artisans who cut my own poles, skin my own calf hides, design and construct the pieces, finish and upholster them.”

Dude ranches and guests of those ranches were Ken’s primary clientele through the early years, and Ken describes the business as being “feast or famine.” Occasionally supplementing his income through other ventures, then having up to six employees, slowing down once again, and then going to the dude ranch convention, Siggins characterized this time as, “go like crazy, then slow down until the next big order.”2 5 Triangle Z’s first big contract was for the Flathead Lake Lodge in Bigfork, Montana in 1994. One of the project’s biggest challenges was a lack of quality material, so Siggins, resilient and industrious, scavenged the forest for dry poles to complete the project. 26

Over the years, Siggins would have several employees who would later become established craftsmen in their own right, and most notably, Jimmy Covert. Covert grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. After graduating college, he and his wife, Lynda, moved to southern Indiana. In Indiana, the Covert’s worked on their farm and ran their own sawmill. In 1984, Covert accepted an apprenticeship from Siggins, and together with their two small children, Jimmy and Lynda moved to Cody. The Covert’s lived on the South Fork, and Jimmy worked for Ken until 1990 when the family moved into town and Jimmy setup his own shop. During his time at Triangle Z, Covert not only learned the craft of woodworking, but he began to develop his own style. In the years following, Covert’s organic designs helped to push the Molesworth style in new directions, and along with several other talented artisans, helped create a new “Cody style” of western furniture.

Siggins’ place in the annals of western studio furniture history should be celebrated. In addition to his mentorship, his furniture under the Triangle Z Ranch label helped to keep western style and design relevant in years when there was not a national craze for all things western. However, in the true fashion of ranch ethics, Siggins will be the last person to brag or boast, instead working quietly at his shop thirty miles up the South Fork of the Shoshone River. When asked recently about slowing down or retirement, Siggins commented, “I love it, you know, and I just can’t wait to get up in the morning and go to work making furniture.”

Introduction to Western Studio Furniture

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.

3rd Annual By Western Hands Invitational Design Exhibition

(Cody, Wyo.) – The spirit of the West runs deep in Cody, Wyoming. A long legacy of artisans who call this place home find great inspiration in this final frontier, using their own hands to create pieces that embody and preserve the West.

In celebration of the artists who keep Cody’s legacy of western functional art thriving, the third-annual By Western Hands Invitational Design Exhibition will take place Sept. 21-23, 2017 on the south lawn of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West – between the main building and the Buffalo Bill Art Show & Sale tent.
Craftsmen will display their Western-themed pieces at this show. Functional art forms will range from wood to glass, metal to leather, and beyond, giving a wide variety of artists with and without showrooms the chance to share their distinctive work.

The exhibit will take place during Cody’s Rendezvous Royale Week, which will run from Sept. 19-23, 2017. Showcasing in conjunction with the Buffalo Bill Art Show & Sale and Rendezvous Royale week will allow Western artisans access to individuals from around the nation who value fine craftsmanship.
By Western Hands will also sponsor Phil Huber, co-host of the TV show The Woodsmith Shop broadcast on PBS and is the multi-media editor of Woodsmith magazine, as a speaker on Friday, September 22nd , 2:00 PM in the Coe Auditorium at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. The title of Mr. Huber’s presentation will be Finding the Future: Craftsmanship, Community & History.

Cody community members founded By Western Hands as a non-profit organization in 2015 with the mission to promote artisans through events and related activities that help sustain the creation of decorative and functional art, using designs and techniques influenced by the American West.
Nearly a dozen of the artists showcased this year currently live and work in the Cody area, positively contributing to our economy and culture. These craftsmen continue to uphold Cody’s longstanding reputation for exquisite Western functional art.

The West lives on in Cody, Wyoming: in its wilderness, in its traditions, and in the creations of Western hands. This year’s By Western Hands Invitational Design Exhibition is a chance to catch the spirit of the ever-evolving West through the form of functional art design.

Contact: Dennie Hammer (director@bywesternhands.org), 307-250-2228