Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Western Style

Photo courtesy Flickr
Photo courtesy Flickr

Such is the passage of time that I remember the unique mixture of Victorian, native American, and country furnishings that is characteristic of the early West. A particular mix of urban, country, and tribal, Western is a style that entertains, works damned hard, and enriches utilitarian quarters. This genre is an authentic way to furnish a Fifties tract ranch house.

Early television westerns are good visual guides to Western style. When Hollywood began producing horse operas, it hired experts like legendary Montana painter Charlie Russel to oversee technical accuracy. Sets communicated the achingly rigorous economy of early Western architecture, built from the straight-grain Doug fir that made West coast forests a strategic resource for the masts of sailing ships and roofed and sided with cedar split from six hundred year old trees.

Understand Western style by understanding distribution: until the mid 1970s, all national advertising contained the proviso “prices slightly higher west of the Rockies”. Abundant local wood, severe earthquakes, and that simple economic reality shaped our interiors from the beginning of Euro-american settlement.

Manufactured goods sailed from the Northeast via the tip of South America or from China and Japan; they were carted over land and over the Rockies on ox-drawn covered wagons. Later they arrived in boxcars. No matter how you figure it, getting a high-end European item of furnishing to the West was an achievement.

My mother and I used to watch television together in the early Fifties, and she kept up a running commentary on the sets, observing how true they were to the interiors of her pioneer grandparents’ generation. If this kind of style interests you, get familiar with the Sears catalogue so you’ll be able to distinguish elegance from the expedient. The Oregon Trail was lined with discarded New England antiques: when the going got tough, wagons were lightened of non-essentials, so an early piece that made it as far as Portland or Puget Sound had earned its place.

Western style is a mix of a few essential pieces of Victoriana, captain’s or country ladderback chairs like the ones sold on roadsides in Appalachia, cowhide rugs, native American blankets and artifacts, weapons, and trophy heads. The high-end convertible kerosene/electric lamp is a prize. Quilts, lace curtains, traveler’s sets of small volumes of literature, roller shades, and handmade rag and braided rugs are typical solutions to basic needs.

I love Western style, because it allows me to enjoy carefully designed 1890 quarters in unpretentious comfort. Local antiques are very rare, but Seattle has sleepers. Our fabulous wood was worked into built-in cupboards by the gifted Northern European carpenters who made our early houses, and building salvage outfits offer these works for very reasonable prices. It’s not hard to find other characteristic used or vintage pieces, and once you get the basic premise of Western style, that of working with what’s local and good value and topping it off with a few prizes, it’s easy to improvise.

An expert exclaimed over my hanging collection of Navaho rugs until I told her that they were $100 Turkish kilims I’d picked up at a special sale at a local carpet outlet. (Buy a small handbook of Oriental rugs, let the patterns seep into your memory, and be aware that the Navaho, Turkey, and Tibet are a continuum of sheep-raising, silver and turquoise-loving mountain people.) Any decent sofa can easily be reupholstered with hot-melt glue and worn wool blankets or denim. Watch a few classic Westerns and get a feel for the chairs-they turn up all the time used. Thonet bentwood and captain’s chairs are easy to come by: they’re coffee shop classics for good reason.

Blue Willow or other china printed from steel-engraved transfer designs, utilitarian thick white coffee shop china, Asian rice bowls, fiddle-handled flatware, white linens, velvet, cast iron cookware, pressed glass (a uniquely American art form), the genuine lace known as crochet, framed photographs, and the all-important huge tea kettle are period classics. Western style is mercifully free of sentimental country kitsch.

One of the things I like best about Western style is the mixture of practical and elegant, high-tech and paleolithic. There is little excess in an old Western interior, simply because excess was not available, and housekeepers had better things to do. Homes were centers of production, and labor was scarce.

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