A little Design Vocabulary for you today, as we mosey on into the sunset of the work week. We’re going to look at a unique American furniture designer and how his creations have become part of our national identity.
Thomas C. Molesworth (1890-1977) was born in Kansas in 1890 and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. After working at a furniture store in Chicago, he, like many men of his generation, enlisted and fought in World War I. After returning from the war, he eventually found work managing a furniture store in Cody, Wyoming.
In 1933, Molesworth got a unique commission from Moses Annenberg, a major national newspaper publisher of his day. Annenberg had seen and admired Molesworth’s work in his store windows. He asked Molesworth to completely furnish his newly built ranch, “Ranch A”, in Beulah, Wyoming. Molesworth created the lighting, accessories and over 24o pieces of furniture for the ranch house.
The success of his Ranch A design led to a wealth of commissions for his Shoshone Furniture Company, which he operated with his wife for thirty years. Hotels, lodges, major homes and even Dwight Eisenhower’s Gettysburg home ordered custom furniture from Molesworth.
Today, original Molesworth pieces are dream acquisitions for collectors and experts alike. If you are an Antiques Roadshow fan like I am, you can watch for the unbridled excitement of the appraisers when a real Molesworth piece is brought in to be examined.
So, what makes Molesworth so unique? When the West was settled in the 1800’s, the homesteaders, ranchers, cowboys and other new residents made furniture out of what was on hand. Before the spread of the railroad, furniture for your home was whatever you could build or brought out West with you in your wagon.
As a result of these limitations, most furnishings were simply made, using local materials. None of the exotic hardwoods, ornate finishes and luxury upholstery that we normally associate with the Victorian era were available out West. If you think back to any of your childhood “Little House on the Prairie” memories (especially the books), you’ll remember that Pa built most of the furniture himself and that window pane glass was something you save up your money to afford.
While most of America was discovering the Sears catalog home, Molesworth took the old Western design restrictions and embraced them. His upholstery used beautiful local Navajo rugs, his furniture sported carved Western motifs in natural wood finishes and his fine leathers were not from Italy, but from locally raised cattle.
Can you see how he respected the natural burl of this piece of wood’s growth? Each piece is original because he works within the guidelines of the natural form.
I admire Molesworth for using the indigenous landscape motifs in creative ways, such as in this:
Can’t you just imagine how beautiful this would look with a blazing fire behind it? It makes the fire the focus of the art as a sunset. Gorgeous design!
As luck would have it, America was re-discovering the West at the same time that Molesworth was furnishing it. With the installation of the National Parks system and interstate highways, more and more Americans took to vacationing out West in the ’30’s, ’40’s and ’50’s. With Molesworth’s unique furnishings filling the most popular lodges and hotels, his style soon became recognizable as “authentic” Western furniture.
His work also coincided with the invention of the most popular marketing tool ever invented: television. America loved its early television and it loved its Westerns even more. (Ask any male Baby Boomer if he ever owned or wanted to own a Davy Crockett raccoon skin hat.) How better to enjoy 20 seasons of Gunsmoke than watching from your own Molesworth chair?
Thomas Molesworth died in 1977 (just two years after Gunsmoke ended its record-breaking run), but his style has lived on. “Molesworth” remains the gold-standard name for western inspired furnishings. Molesworth originals reach high auction prices, often in the millions. Several major museums have curated very popular Molesworth exhibits.
New designers and artisans have found creative ways to bring Molesworth’s Western style to new generations of Americans. Even some of our leading style-makers have embraced the relaxed comfort of Molesworth in their own homes. For example:
This is the Telluride, Colorado living room of Ralph Lauren. I can definitely see the appeal of sinking into that sofa with a great book or watching tv while sharing a big bowl of popcorn with my sweetie. Can you imagine yourself there?
What says “old American West” to you? Have you had a great vacation out West or are you lucky enough to live there? What speaks to you about Molesworth’s designs? Don’t be shy. Blogs are for conversation, so leave a comment!
Happy Trails to you, until Monday!