The Western Aes­thetic

A re­mark­able col­lec­tion of Thomas Molesworth fur­ni­ture is avail­able at Sotheby’s May 23 in New York.

Western Art Collector - - CONTENTS - By Michael Claw­son

Close your eyes and pic­ture Western fur­ni­ture. You’re likely imag­in­ing hunt­ing lodges filled with leather club chairs, deep-cush­ioned so­fas with polished wood arm­rests, lamps made of antler and horn, side ta­bles carved from huge chunks of burl, and panel chairs with in­lay and leather cush­ions fas­tened to the seat with shiny brass tacks.

Many of these iconic Western de­signs can be traced back to one de­signer, Thomas C. Molesworth, who al­most sin­gle-hand­edly in­vented this unique style of fur­ni­ture in the 1930s. On May 23, Sotheby’s will sell more than 60 mag­nif­i­cent Molesworth pieces at auc­tion in New York. The sale, Thomas Molesworth: De­sign­ing the Amer­i­can West, will be drawn from the col­lec­tion Ruth and Jake Bloom, who de­signed their Sun Val­ley, Idaho, home al­most ex­clu­sively in Molesworth fur­ni­ture, from in­laid game ta­bles and leather-cush­ioned club chairs to carved beds and or­nate floor lamps. Pieces in­clude a rare 1950s floor lamp with Rus­sel Blood cutout shade (est. $25/35,000), a 1940 “Gun­fighter” door (est. $6/8,000), a pair of blue leather arm­chairs with white leather finge (est. $30/50,000), an oc­tag­o­nal in­laid games ta­ble from the OTO Ranch in Mon­tana around 1936 (est. $50/70,000), and a late-1930s sofa made of burled fir (est. $40/60,00).

Jodi Pol­lack, Sotheby’s co-world­wide head of 20th-cen­tury de­sign, re­mem­bers vis­it­ing the Idaho home and see­ing the col­lec­tion for the first time. “When we trav­eled out to Sun Val­ley

to ex­pe­ri­ence the col­lec­tion in con­text with the home, it was in­cred­i­bly ex­cit­ing. Of course, the col­lec­tion is there with this won­der­ful con­tem­po­rary art col­lec­tion as well, and see­ing ev­ery­thing first­hand you got a sense for how tac­tile and vis­ceral the pieces are,” she says. “It’s ex­tra­or­di­nary to come across a col­lec­tion with many crit­i­cal Molesworth pieces. You can see how it was a la­bor of love for the Blooms as they put it to­gether over the course of a few decades with such a tremen­dous pas­sion and vigor.”

She says the pieces beg to be touched and used. “They’re just so ap­proach­able, and they have this great Western spirit to them,” she says. “They aren’t the kinds of pieces you would con­sider frag­ile or might be too ner­vous to use. They are meant to be used and en­joyed… and you just im­me­di­ately want to touch them and put your hands on them.”

Rather than have the fur­ni­ture shipped out to be pho­tographed at an­other lo­ca­tion, Sotheby’s opted, with the collector’s per­mis­sion, to have the Molesworth pieces pho­tographed in the Idaho home to show po­ten­tial bid­ders how they can be used, and not just with other Western art­work, but also con­tem­po­rary art as well. Pol­lack says the works of­fer dy­namic and im­mer­sive pos­si­bil­i­ties for many kinds of col­lec­tions, adding that the ma­te­ri­als and crafts­man­ship are ex­quis­ite and un­par­al­leled. “There is a strong legacy in his work… what he was do­ing was wholly unique and non­deriva­tive,” she says. “When it comes to stu­dio de­sign, Molesworth plays an im­por­tant part of that lin­eage.”

While ac­quir­ing the pieces for the sale, Sotheby’s worked closely with Terry Winchell, owner of Fight­ing Bear An­tiques in Jack­son Hole, Wy­oming, who is widely con­sid­ered to be the top ex­pert on Molesworth fur­ni­ture. Winchell was also in­volved with orig­i­nally sell­ing the Blooms many of their pieces.

“[Molesworth] was a prodigy. He re­ally had the West fig­ured out, and he did much more than fur­ni­ture, but also to­tal ‘in­te­ri­orscapes’—navajo rugs, iron work, chan­de­liers… he had a great eye for de­sign and pro­por­tion. He also knew how to make fur­ni­ture very com­fort­able,” Winchell says. “He also used bright colors, es­pe­cially in leather. In 1930 us­ing red and yel­low leather was un­heard of, but he pulled it off.”

Molesworth was born in 1890 in Kansas. He went to the Art Institute of Chicago and briefly worked for a fur­ni­ture maker in Chicago be­fore en­list­ing as a Marine to go fight in World War I. Af­ter the war he bounced around the West, in­clud­ing in South Dakota and Billings, Mon­tana, be­fore set­tling in Cody, Wy­oming, where he started the Shoshone Fur­ni­ture Com­pany in 1931. Busi­ness was steady for the first two years, but then jolted forward when he re­ceived a com­mis­sion from Moses An­nen­berg, a wealthy Penn­syl­va­nia pub­lisher, who wanted Molesworth to fur­nish and decorate Ranch A, a 10,000-square-foot re­treat on his 700-acre ranch in eastern Wy­oming. He cre­ated more than 250 works, and as the Buf­falo Bill Cen­ter of the West notes, “a style was born.”

In a 1990 ar­ti­cle on the de­signer for The New York Times, Molesworth’s work was both praised and poked at play­fully—“it was said that you could al­ways tell a piece of Molesworth; his so­fas and chairs had seats so deep it took ‘cow­boy fe­murs’ to sit on one.” Pa­tri­cia Leigh Brown’s ar­ti­cle continues: “Like Frank Lloyd Wright and Gus­tav Stick­ley, Molesworth saw fur­ni­ture as a means to cre­ate a uni­fied ar­chi­tec­tural mood. Though his In­dian maid­ens, styl­ized cat­tails and log-en­cased ra­dios said ‘wilder­ness,’ the con­tours of his fur­ni­ture whis­pered ‘modern.’ His trade­marks in­cluded honey-col­ored wood, fir and pine burls, pastel leather up­hol­stery and brass tacks, but his best work was im­bued with an ex­ag­ger­ated sense of Western ro­mance, the fur­ni­ture equiv­a­lent of the tall tale… in his sense of show­man­ship, Molesworth was the Buf­falo Bill of fur­ni­ture.”

It was all of these qual­i­ties, and many

oth­ers, that brought the Blooms to the pieces, Winchell says. “They have this un­canny knack of walk­ing into my shop and see­ing some­thing great and in­stantly buy­ing it. They were great at in­te­grat­ing all of this fur­ni­ture in their home, and a lot of it was need-based, like beds. They needed beds so they bought Molesworth beds,” he says. “And the way they merged to­gether con­tem­po­rary art and fur­ni­ture is just beau­ti­ful. They are collector’s col­lec­tors.”

Ruth Bloom says they al­ways made pur­chases that would fit into the “en­vi­ron­ment” of their Sun Val­ley home, and Molesworth just fell into their lap. “When we started look­ing at fur­ni­ture, our daugh­ter was at school in the east, so we would drive to these an­tique stores all over. We were in New York City and I remember go­ing into an an­tique store in a Green­wich Vil­lage brown­stone and there sit­ting in the cor­ner by the win­dow was this chair, one of the Molesworth chairs with wood back and carv­ings, a Na­tive Amer­i­can weav­ing with the leather seat. It spoke to both of us,” Ruth says. “Af­ter that we went all over look­ing for pieces, in­clud­ing auc­tions like the Coeur d’alene Art Auc­tion. I remember be­ing on the phone for many of the pieces. One thing that drew me in was al­ways the nat­u­ral burl wood, some­thing about those colors, and I’m not re­ally a color per­son—i wear black and white mostly, and our home in Los An­ge­les is black and white—but Sun Val­ley just called for these won­der­ful colors.”

Though she never met the de­signer, Ruth adds that what im­pressed her most about Molesworth, the artist, was he knew who he was. “His work is true to what it is,” she says. “He had a vi­sion with his ma­te­ri­als, and he was true to it in ev­ery­thing he did.”

Jake and Ruth Bloom’s Idaho home, fea­tur­ing rare fur­ni­ture works by Thomas Molesworth. Es­ti­mates range from $3,000 to $70,000.

Pair of club chairs (est. $30/50,000) and two-tiered stand (est. $10/15,000), circa 1937, made with burled fir, pony up­hol­stery and brass tacks.

Pair of arm­chairs (est. $30/50,000) and drink stands (est. $7/10,000) from circa 1938.

A rare floor lamp with Rus­sel Blood cutout shade, circa 1950, is es­ti­mated at $25,000 to $35,000.

A pair of club chairs and ot­tomans, circa 1940, made with burled fir, orig­i­nal leather, Chi­mayo wool weav­ing and brass tacks, have an es­ti­mate of $40,000 to $60,000.

Club chair (est. $15/20,000) and “Jack Rab­bit” ash­stand (est. $5/7,000), circa 1940.

Four-panel back arm­chairs, circa 1945, made by Wy­oming Fur­ni­ture Com­pany (est. $30/50,000).

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