Rancho Deluxe

Colorado Homes & Lifestyles, January/February 1991

It’s been called Cowboy Kitsch, Rustic Western, and even True West--although that name is a misnomer for the ‘30s style created more for city slickers wanting to buy into the romance of the range than for real Westerners. Whatever you call it, the vintage look, which recently has sold by the truckload to big-name Hollywood stars and in-the-know investors, traces back to the vision of one man: craftsman and designer Thomas Molesworth.

From his Shoshone Furniture Co. in Cody, Wyo., Molesworth spend 30 years crafting an American West-inspired look that made its way into hotels, dude ranches, clubs, corporate offices and houses, including Dwight Eisenhower’s den and the real-life home on the range of publishing magnate Moses Annenberg. 

The town of Cody, founded in 1901 by William “Buffalo Bill” Cody to market the Wild West to tourists, proved the ideal place for Molesworth to perfect his work, blending rustic folk art materials with arts-and-crafts sturdiness and the streamlined flow of “modern” ‘30s style. His trademarks include fir and pine burls, vividly colored leather upholstery, fringe, antlers, cut-out Western motifs and brass tacks. And his best pieces mirror the disarming wit and knack for exaggeration found in the work of cowboy poets and artists. 

But for all his rustic charm, Molesworth was no hick. Born in Kansas and raised in Montana, he was a trained artist who studied at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago. There he embraced the two major themes of the arts and crafts movement: the idea of workshop “factories” that use high-quality materials and workmanship, and a desire for unity of design that extends to architecture, interior design and furnishings.

Out of that concept of design unity Molesworth's larger projects emerged like mini theme parks, bearing his signature look right down to the light fixtures, curtain rods and door hinges. Paul Fees and Wally Reber, curators of the “Interior West: The Craft & Style of Thomas Molesworth,” a 1989 exhibition at Cody’s Buffalo Bill Historical Center, refer to these thoroughly Molesworth creations as “roomscapes.” Commenting on the designer’s deceptively simple style, Reber says, “It’s a look as Western as Wyoming and as contemporary as Scottsdale. Molesworth combined several traditional rustic and Western elements in new and sophisticated ways.”

Indeed, as well as drawing from the then-contemporary arts and crafts movement, Molesworth was part of a large “rustic” tradition that, spurred by wealthy urbanites wanting to get away from it all, also has been called “urban fantasy.” In upstate New York, the attempt to let decor reflect a vacation lodge’s rugged setting led to the Adirondack style, evoking a romanticized sportsman image. In the Southwest, a similar but distinctly regional genre developed, much of it growing out of William Penhallow Henderson’s “Santa Fe” chair, which became a model for handcrafted furniture to follow.

For Molesworth, the rustic style was well suited to selling a romantic version of the West he’d come to love, and he incorporated into his designs the work of Western artists and photographers, including Edward Grigware, Hans Kleiber, E.W. Gollings, Stan Kershaw, Frank Tenny Johnson and woodcarver Marshall Woods. But on the side of modernity, Molesworth also made annual trips to Chicago’s furniture mart, measuring furniture and checking out the latest trends and materials. His rustic-with-a-twist results, which transcend the merely rough-hewn, include rugged leather dyed in improbable colors. 

Today, with nostalgia for the simplicity, heroism and romance of the Old West running high, even the prices of Western-motif coloring books and children’s mugs are shooting upward. In that atmosphere, Molesworth’s old Cody stomping grounds--he died in 1977--are being inundated with requests for items designed by “the Frank Lloyd Wright of the West.”

But without a doubt the choicest cowboy collectible on the market today is The Old Lodge near Glenwood Springs, a two-story log cabin designed by Molesworth in 1935 for George Sumers, then president of the board of the New York Stock Exchange. One of Molesworth’s grandest commissions, the lodge represents the largest intact collection, public or private, of his work. Now for sale through Sotheby’s International Realty in association with Coates Reid and Waldron of Aspen, this collector’s dream can be had at a price of $2.9 million.

Like the ultimate grown-up version of Lincoln Logs, the house originally was assembled from a giant kit of logs, milled notched and numbered in Minneapolis, then delivered to the Sumers site on the Roaring Fork River.

With the shell in place, Molesworth worked his magic, filling the 15 rooms with fantasy details, including elaborate ironwork chandeliers decorated with buffaloes and arrowheads, and scenic terrazzo floors. Many of the lodge’s nine bedrooms are named for the motifs that decorated them from headboards to side chairs and drawer pulls. THe dining room, called the Thunderbird Room for the symbol silhouetted on its 16 chairs, also features a lighted Indian-scene diorama. And in the cathedral-ceilinged great room, the focal point of the lodge, a floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace dominates one end and twin staircases ascend to the surrounding balcony.

The style may be glorified bunkhouse to some, but to those who appreciate Molesworth’s complexity and wit, this signature cowboy cabin offers the best of the Western spirit. Still in the real West of Cody, to those old-timers who actually knew “Moley,” the memory of his skill at gin rummy and poker and his love of cards counts as much as his handiness with wood and leather. Says one old friend, “He enjoyed people who enjoyed playing cards.”