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A New Frontier

As the Western style makes a comeback, designers have stayed true to its rugged cowboy roots. But keep a lookout for lots of modern touches too.

September 30, 2004|David A. Keeps | Special to The Times

Arno Grether did not shoot that buffalo. "It was struck by lightning in Nebraska," says the peaceable Pasadena native, who hung the beast's skull on the back porch of his 1906 Craftsman home. Another souvenir of the Wild West, the horseshoe embedded in his front drive, is not only for good luck but also sort of a signature for Grether, who raises thoroughbreds. It's no surprise then that the inside of Grether's homestead looks like a tableau from the Autry. But, whoa, what's that twig table doing by the Arts and Crafts stained-glass window? And isn't that an Oriental rug and Asian coffee table at the foot of the burl wood sofa?

Welcome to a new frontier: 21st century Western, an old style of decor that is newly popular. With a look that embraces traditional cowboys-and-Indians iconography along with East Coast rusticity, Old California influences and modern proportions, Western is primed for a remake. Steeped in screen history, but miles away from Hopalong Cassidy's hacienda or J.R. Ewing's glitzy Dallas compound, the new down-home is growing up to accommodate a world of tastes.

"You can have willow Adirondack furniture and Middle East textiles like kilims" in the new Western interior, says Su Bacon, Grether's decorator. For an Altadena client, Bacon put wicker and New Guinea art in front of an adobe fireplace. Even die-hard urban modernists warm up to contemporary furniture with cowboy detailing, such as New York designer Thomas O'Brien's saddle-blanket upholstered Leo chair for Hickory Chair of North Carolina.

Traditional decorators are also back in the saddle-stitched style.

"I just covered a fully upholstered English loveseat in cowhide, which always looks chic," says Joe Nye, a Los Angeles interior designer. "I'm ready to put leather fringe on my sports jackets."

As with many home design movements, pop culture helped blaze the trail. In 2000, three home decor books, "Rancho Deluxe," "Cowboy Chic" and "Monterey," helped a new generation rediscover ranch architecture, Western furniture and the pre-World War II Spanish Revival in Los Angeles. As horse operas returned to the screen -- both big ("The Alamo") and small ("Deadwood") -- this year, cowboy hats and snap-front Western shirts once again made the trip from runways to retail. Gucci and Polo featured tooled and leather jackets, and Vogue photographed a pony skin clutch hanging from a horned skull.

Now chandeliers made from antlers are galloping onto the market alongside buffalo-check blankets and Navajo-style rugs. The Western clothing company Double D Ranchwear licensed a line of furniture to the William Alan company, which also makes sofas with horn legs and branded leather ottomans with hoof-shaped wooden feet.

High-end 20th century antique dealers on La Cienega Boulevard are dabbling in a sophisticated form of Western for their Hollywood clientele. Blackman Cruz is offering a pair of hacienda-style sling-seat butaca chairs by famed 1930s Mexican architect Luis Barragan, and Pegaso has tooled leather director-style chairs from South America. At Chez Camille, a glass tabletop is mounted on a pedestal of carved horse heads that is pure Bel-Air Regency.

Western decor has always been a jigsaw puzzle of influences that are equally rough-hewn and refined, functional and decorative. For every tufted Victorian fainting couch brought West by the railroads in the late 1800s, there were benches and beds hacked out of trees, fireplaces made from river rocks, and tables crafted from old oxen yokes and wagon wheels. In California, additional flavors spiced the stew, including the ironwork, tiles and heavily carved dark wood cabinetry of the Spanish missionary designs and the boldly colored fabrics and wood furniture from Mexico.

Hollywood helped define the romance of the West. According to Alan Weintraub, author of "Rancho Deluxe," cinematic sodbusters from the 1920s and '30s brought the style home. It was in Will Rogers' "half ranch, half Beverly Hills mansion" in Pacific Palisades abode, Weintraub writes, "that the cowboy style was codified."

While these "shrines to vanished ways of life" were good publicity, Weintraub writes, they also exemplified "an authentic American style, based on native materials and vernacular forms, raised to the sumptuousness and clarity of any other style, Colonial, Gothic or Modern."

The 1930s also saw the rise of dude ranches, where city slickers could live like cowboys. Many of these vacation spots were decked out with exuberant pieces from the Shoshone Furniture Co. of Cody, Wyo. Founder Thomas Molesworth applied artistry and whimsy to rustic furniture, adding pine poles, brass tacks and leather fringe as decorative elements to burl wood pieces. Reproductions of his intricate designs from 1931 to 1958 run to $10,000 for sofas; originals may fetch six figures.

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