On September 20, 1993, the Master Artisans Guild hosted the first Western Design Conference. The conference was three days long, included twenty-three presenters, twenty-nine exhibitors, and a fashion show at the Old Trail Town. Like the earlier shows, the first Western Design Conference was run by the craftsmen and a core group of volunteers, all led by Mike Patrick. “He was the juice behind the movement.” Wally Reber described for Mike and his passion for the Cody shows. That passion drove not only Mike and New West to new heights, but also elevated the conference and those craftsmen who participated. Virginia said of the early shows, “you’re going to bring in fifty competitors? You’re nuts!” Though the conference did not yet have fifty exhibitors, it continued to thrive.
In ’94, the conference had thirty-nine exhibitors and fifteen presenters. In addition to growing the scale of the show from the previous year, the 1994 conference included the prestigious Switchback Ranch Purchase Award. The brainchild of Mike Patrick, who had the initial idea and a contact to underwrite the award, and Wally Reber, who had the idea for the Buffalo Bill Historical Center to purchase the award, the Switchback Award was added to preserve the best piece of the year. With the generosity of David and Paula Leuschen, the Switchback became the most coveted of all of the awards – not only would the craftsmen have sold their piece, but it would be part of the permanent collection at the premier western museum in the world.
Although still primarily a volunteer run show, the 1994 conference also marked a shift from the early guild shows and first conference in that there was a paid executive director. Dennis Zenhle, the president of a marketing and advertising firm based in Laramie that consulted for New West, was hired as the first executive director of the Western Design Conference. Although he was connected to Mike Patrick through New West, Zenhle was the director for only the 1994 show. In 1995, the show hired Cody local, K.T. Roes and her firm, Wordsworth, to run the conference.
By 1995, western interior design and fashion was fully en vogue. The scale of this growing trend was clearly evidenced by the Christie’s auction on June 7, 1995 – Furnishings from Thomas Molesworth’s “Old Lodge” for George Sumers, circa 1935 . Like the Molesworth exhibition in 1989, the Christie’s auction was further proof that western style was a legitimate school of design. The Christie’s auction helped to galvanize the movement for those putting on and participating in the Western Design Conference, and the ’95 conference reached the mark of fifty exhibitors that Mike had envisioned only a few years prior.
The 1996 and ‘97 conferences continued to grow. By then, it included nearly sixty extremely talented craftsmen, designers, leatherworkers, and metalworkers, with the majority traveling to Cody from outside the state. The conference had a board of directors, made primarily of craftsmen, was an established non-profit corporation, and, with the boards’ personal backing, had secured a note from a local bank to ensure the show would continue to grow.
In its origin, the Western Design Conference was a way to bring together the best western style furniture makers to showcase their talents, help push each other to be better, and educate their clients and each other as to what quality western designed studio arts represented. In its goal, according to the craftsmen that were part of those early shows, it was successful. It was the place where interior designers, gallery owners, and prospective clients could come to see what the top western craftsmen and artisans were building and making.