The Migrating Western Style

June 02, 1991|By Michael Walsh | Michael Walsh,Universal Press Syndicate

Home decorating styles, like life itself, evolve over time to reflect changing tastes, circumstances and cultural influences. That's what accounts for mounting interest in the west-by-northwest migration of one of the most popular and enduring design trends of recent years, generically known as Southwest style.

Brewing for some time, a home-on-the-range renaissance and a revival of interest in furnishings, art, objects and artifacts associated with America's original cowboy-and-Indian and pioneer-and-prospector era is only now beginning to find widespread expression. Having had enormous success with regional artifacts and decorative elements from old New Mexico and Arizona, professional interior designers, retailers and antique dealers are broadening their scope. These days they're finding inventory and inspiration in all of the old West, meaning almost anywhere west of the Mississippi -- the Dakotas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Colorado, Montana and Wyoming.

One immediate consequence of this stylistic evolution is that new categories of collectible and new furnishings are beginning to find their way to the marketplace and the living room.

What's going on here? Well, for one thing, the baby-boom generation, that great glut of acquisitive overachievers moving through the culture like a pig through a python, is pausing to ponder its origins. Having looked only forward for so long, the fortysomethings among us are now looking backward, back beyond the Eisenhower era even, to see if we can catch a glimpse of our collective history and national heritage, our roots. And, regardless of where our family tree may have originally sprouted, our national roots took hold in the doctrine of Manifest Destiny that led settlers to the West.

In part, this reflective mood may be traced to the television generation's nostalgia for its own shoot-'em-up youth. We'll take Roy Rogers over Robocop and Trigger over Ninja Turtles any day.

Then, too, our heightened interest in the old West has undoubtedly been aided and abetted by other cultural factors. The immensely popular motion picture "Dances With Wolves" brought the U.S. Cavalry and Sioux warriors to our neighborhood theaters. January's television rerun of "Lonesome Dove," followed by February's televising of "Son of the Morning Star," brought Texas Rangers and wranglers and then George Armstrong Custer and Sitting Bull and the West of the 19th century right into our living rooms.

The west-to-east migration of this design trend is as inevitable as the east-to-west migration of 18th century pioneers.

For now, though, the trend is most evident near the original sources -- that is, in the western United States. Skiers who visited the tony antique and gift shops in Vail, Colo., this year found them chock-full of western memorabilia or westernesque merchandise. Just three years ago, these same shops were exhibiting goods almost exclusively attributable to the Southwest -- carved coyotes, Navajo rugs and salt and pepper shakers in the shape of cactuses.

But now, candlesticks fashioned from old branding irons are turning up in New York, and beaded buckskin tribal tunics that can be hung kimono-fashion on a wall are surfacing in Chicago.

A California furniture manufacturer, National Upholstery Co., reports brisk sales of sofas and chairs from its western collection nationwide. And those furniture retailers across the country who until recently were dealing almost exclusively with derivative Southwest-style merchandise, are now offering lodgepole four-poster beds and chairs upholstered in steer hide and denim.

The list of both old and new, antique and reproduction merchandise is long and, as the awareness and popularity of western style spreads, more goods will surface. But for now, look for well-worn cowboy hats and boots, chaps, spurs, bridles, bits, reins, holsters and six-shooters, buckskin trousers, tomahawks, arrows, quivers, ceremonial rattles, dance sticks and spears -- all of which can be displayed on a wall, mantel or shelf. Also look for photographs, prints and posters depicting American Indians or cowboys, ranch hands and wranglers.

If America's wild and woolly old West seems too remote for you to identify with, then investigate the history of American Indian tribes and their paleface successors in your region of the country. As the national trend toward interest in western merchandise grows, regional revivals will pick up steam. Authentic regional antiques and artifacts from Indian tribes and pioneers of the 1800s will undoubtedly begin to surface soon near you.

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