July/August 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 4
The romance of the American West—complete with stampeding buffalo herds and Indian tepees—is effectively captured by the massive wrought-iron and rawhide chandelier on the opposite page. Measuring almost four feet across, it was created around 1940 by Thomas Molesworth, a Cody decorator and furniture maker, for the insurance tycoon W. R. Coe’s Wyoming ranch. Molesworth designed the chandelier but hired the Campbell Brothers of Cody to execute the intricate ironwork. For years it hung in a forty- by fifty-foot room at the ranch, emitting a soft, diffused light.
Molesworth often included such custom-made lighting in his Western “roomscapes.” Influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, he believed not only in well-crafted furniture but that interiors should reflect a unity of style, linking architecture with interior design.
And his style, though inspired by the Adirondack and rustic furniture traditions, was definitely Western. He used warty burls and thin wood poles to construct chairs, tables, and couches. Chimayo weavings, from Ortega’s in New Mexico, were transformed into upholstery. Stretched rawhide became lampshades. The finest leather, from Branchard Brothers and Lane in New Jersey, covered his tables, chairs, and bedsteads.
Molesworth surrounded his furniture with authentic Navajo rugs and sand paintings as well as original Western art. When he needed Navajo rugs, he headed south to the reservation. The Navajo Indians, receiving word of his arrival, would carry in their handwoven rugs, bundled in gunnysacks, and Molesworth would buy them—sight unseen—for about seventy dollars apiece. What he sold to his clients was more than a well-furnished interior; it was a Western experience.
Although he took his work seriously, Molesworth brought a conscious element of fun and exaggeration to his designs. A wrought-iron mule on elongated legs is a freestanding ashtray; the animal’s packs lift out for emptying. Antlers become wings for an easy chair. An incised horse head watches from the footboard of a bed.
Molesworth didn’t invent Western interior design, but he provided a strong theme that developed into an American Western style. Before him, Western homes were furnished with standard mission-oak furniture from the Montgomery Ward and Sears catalogues. A few local craftsmen made unusual antler and horn furniture—most of it shipped to the Eastern markets for use in hunting lodges. Molesworth combined these local products with his knowledge of interior design and his own interpretation of the American West.
Born in Kansas in 1890, Molesworth originally dreamed of a career as a painter. He attended the Art Institute of Chicago in 1908 and 1909, a time when the institute was a pacesetter in modern decorative arts.
In 1931, after managing the Rowe Furniture Company in Billings, Montana, Molesworth began his Cody furniture company. Two years later Moses Annenberg, a Pennsylvania publishing magnate, asked him to furnish his remote Wyoming retreat. Annenberg assumed he was buying the popular Adirondack-style interior. Instead, Molesworth used his knowledge of rustic and Western designs to create a sophisticated new Western style; his career as a premier American designer and manufacturer had begun.
He proceeded to furnish offices, ranches, and hotels. The Coca-Cola executive Robert Woodruff contracted him to redecorate his TE Ranch, originally owned by Buffalo Bill Cody. Orders poured in from across the nation, even from Dwight Elsenhower’s Pennsylvania farm. Abercrombie and Fitch carried a line of his furniture.
By the time of his death in 1977, his pieces were gradually disappearing from their original homes. It wasn’t because they were worn out—he used the very best materials and built to last for generations—but because a few private collectors were quietly buying them up.
Mostly forgotten by the general public for the past two decades, Molesworth has been rediscovered after an exhibit of his work opened at Cody’s Buffalo Bill Historical Center in 1989. New collectors are appearing in Cody to snatch up any remaining examples they can lay their hands on.
Today the pieces can fetch tens of thousands of dollars; an early table with six keyhole-backed chairs and two armchairs sold recently for twenty thousand dollars.
The chandelier on the opposite page now hangs in the home of W. R. Coe’s daughter-in-law, Mrs. Henry H. R. Coe. Except for the bottom shield, everything is original and in excellent working order. And at night it still provides a warm, soft light.