Originally published in Points West magazine
By Thom Huge, Former Director of Communications
Fire at Fault
It was fire that did it. Fire started the rustic furniture movement. But before we talk about how it started, let’s start with what “rustic” is and what does it have to do with cowboys?
Rustic furniture incorporates nature into its design, letting us see natural elements with little or no alteration, using the twists and turns of wood, bark, antler, horn, and leather to bring form and function to the piece. The term also implies that someone without the formal training of a furniture maker built it.
Fire started it. Imagine for a moment our ancient, cave-dwelling ancestors’ lifestyle. They figured out how to harness, start, and use fire. It brought warmth and light. It offered protection from wild animals and insects, and it cooked food.
It’s Friday evening and Mukmuk has just built a roaring campfire in front of his suburban cave and is ready to sizzle a saber-toothed tiger strip steak on a stick. It’s been a long, hard fortnight of hunting and gathering and Mukmuk is ready for a weekend.
“Oy, my aching back,” Mukmuk mutters as he leans over to barbeque his filet. Spying a nearby log that isn’t on fire, he drags it closer. Mukmuk squats down on the log so that he might more comfortably hold his tiger treats over the smoky blaze.
“Ahhhh, that’s better,” Mukmuk sighs, wishing for a nice Merlot to go with it but France hasn’t been invented yet.
That was the beginning of the rustic furniture tradition. Somebody used basic and natural elements to make a chair. That tradition continued through history as man discovered woman (a much better discovery than furniture) and woman discovered decorating…
But seriously, for generations we made our own furniture out of materials that were easily accessible. Finally craftsmen came into their own and the rest of us figured out we could have better, more comfortable furniture if we let an expert build it. Besides, we could also use the time previously spent making our own furniture to be more efficient hunter-gatherers and bankers. With the exception of isolated, rural areas where store-bought furniture wasn’t easily available, furniture building became the province of trained specialists.
Rustic as a Style
In the 1740s we began to see designs for “tree furniture” in Europe but it wasn’t until the first half of the nineteenth century that its popularity took hold. As English families became hunter/gatherer/banker-proficient, they grew in wealth. They began to leave the cities for the suburbs and countryside. The demand began for “garden furniture.” This was furniture that could be used outdoors in English gardens, supplying a comfortable place from which to enjoy the glories of nature in their private gardens. Rustic garden houses and furniture began appearing in America. Lodges and resort hotels in the Adirondacks were being built during the early 1800s as well, creating more demand for the rustic style. During the 1870s even Central Park in New York City was home to dozens of rustic structures, from cabins to gazebos.
The migration of people to the American West during the nineteenth century continued the trend although for practical more than aesthetic reasons. Many a family traversing rivers and mountains of the West had to leave treasured pieces of furniture along the trail because they were simply too heavy to ford a river or make it over a high mountain pass. Highways like the Oregon Trail were littered with everything from fancy bureaus to pianos. When the pioneers, heavy with courage but light on sofas, arrived at their varied western destinations, they couldn’t just pop in to their local discount department store to furnish their new homes. They made their own, simple furniture from materials they had at hand.
After the Civil War, many Americans successfully pursued business careers and discovered a need to get away from it all. Since there were no all-inclusive Caribbean resorts as yet, they began to build vacation homes in some of America’s more remote locales like the Adirondacks, Catskills, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Minnesota’s lake country, the Rocky Mountains, and California. These locales and vacation homes were being built in these areas as the areas suddenly became more accessible, because these Americans were also building highways and railroads to these places.
The Adirondacks were an especially-popular retreat from the large cities of the East. Wealthy families succumbed to the charm of country summer living, getting back to nature but in a very civilized way. Let’s face it, just because you, yourself, didn’t cut the logs, didn’t mean you couldn’t enjoy the satisfying effects of sitting before an open fire.
They chose to furnish their country homes, cabins, and lodges in a manner more appropriate to the mountains and wilderness than to the city. After all, they were trying to get away from the city, albeit temporarily. They found a supply of skilled craftsmen living in the Adirondacks: carpenters and loggers who taught themselves to build furniture in their “spare time.” They were talented men who built one-of-a-kind furniture.
The establishment of national and state parks in the 1890s and early 1900s gave further momentum to rustic design, construction, and architecture, as America built lodges, hotels, restaurants, and other guest accommodations in those parks.
The West (thought I forgot about the cowboy, didn’t you?) wasn’t much interested in the English gardens tradition, so rustic furniture moved decidedly indoors. Western ranchers were giving life to the rustic style, As many of them discovered there might be more money in two-legged critters than in four, they converted their ranches to serving dudes.
During the long, cold winters, they often employed their ranch hands to construct furniture for the ranches. Sometimes they had to furnish an entire ranch over a single winter. These cowboys weren’t formally trained but they were skilled craftsmen in their own right. They could build an entire cabin and could certainly build chairs, tables, cabinets, settees, lamps, and even beds with materials available to them on the ranches. They used logs, branches, twigs, antlers, leather, bone, and fur to make rustic though comfortable and even attractive furniture.
Then Came Molesworth
Cowboy style grew slowly and mostly locally. lt needed a spark. That shot in the arm was Thomas Molesworth.
Molesworth was born in 1890, the son of a well-to-do preacher who moved them from Kansas to near Billings, Montana. Deciding he wanted to be an artist, Tom attended the Art Institute of Chicago in 1908 – 1909. Molesworth worked for a Chicago furniture company, served in the United States Marines during World War I, and then finally returned to Montana to manage a furniture company in Billings.
In 1931, married with two children, Tom Molesworth moved his family to Cody, Wyoming, and opened the Shoshone Furniture Company. The company manufactured “homemade” furniture and was, at first, a modest success.
Business took off for him two years later when Moses Annenberg, a wealthy Pennsylvania publisher, commissioned Molesworth to furnish and decorate the 10,000 square foot retreat on his 700-acre ranch in eastern Wyoming. Molesworth created almost 250 pieces of furniture and decorated the entire inside of the lodge. A style was born.
Before long he was doing work for some of the finest hotels in the West. He was commissioned to design and supply furniture for a myriad of large ranches, guest lodges, and dude ranches. He was even supplying Abercrombie and Fitch so they could supply wealthy sportsmen all over the world.
Some of his earlier efforts included applying facades to already-manufactured furniture but he developed his own forms, too, as he met the needs of the spaces he furnished or the materials he found. Molesworth also established relationships with western artists whose work he incorporated into his furniture designs.
He wasn’t just making furniture. With his exposure to the Arts and Crafts Movement in Chicago during his student days, the Adirondack style (as evidenced by Buffalo Bill’s Pahaska Tepee lodge), and his own acutely defined sense of style, Thomas Molesworth created an environment—a setting, if you will. And his influence is still felt today. From rustic to western—from caveman to John Gallis, Mike Patrick, and dozens more like them—we see evidence of the creative spirit of man wrestling with and using what nature offers. We see the Cowboy Style.
We think Mukmuk would have been proud.
For more information on Cowboy Style, see:
- Interior West: The Craft and Style of Thomas Molesworth by Wally Reber and Paul Fees, Buffalo Bill Historical Center publication
- Adirondack Furniture and the Rustic Traditions by Craig Gilborn, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers
- Cowboy High Style: Thomas Molesworth to the New West by Elizabeth Clair Flood, a Peregrine Smith Book, published by Gibbs Smith
- Rustic Furniture Makers by Ralph Kylloe, A Peregrine Smith Book, published by Gibbs Smith