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