Homestyle on the Range

July 10, 1994|By Ellen Uzelac

CODY, WYO — Cody, Wyo. -- America is in love again -- this time with a tried and true pardner.

The rediscovery of the American West has blazed its way into the popular culture with the resurgence of movie Westerns, the development of a new genre of Western literature and an "Out West" look to everything from fashions to furniture.

Log cabins suddenly are chic. Contemporary Western art is selling at premium prices. Shopping catalogs have taken names like "Uniquely Montana " and "The Last Best Place," which fills its orders from Wisconsin.

Major manufacturers are making Western-style furniture, and a "New West" look has supplanted the Southwest motif of the last few years.

A few months ago, Southwest Sampler magazine changed its name to Country Sampler's West: The Spirit of the Frontier Home to reflect what editor Ann Wilson calls a "nostalgia for true American folk art. People are seeking their roots and coming home. There's a timelessness to the West. Craftsmen in places like Cody are creating classics, not kitsch." (The magazine is based in Illinois.)

Cowboy chic has even forged its way abroad: Levi jeans are the height of fashion in Italy. Parisians have taken to pointed-toe cowboy boots. And in Tokyo, it's not unusual to hear the theme song from "Bonanza" in karaoke bars.

"The West is the quintessential American experience," said Montana's Shari Pullar, a spokeswoman for the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, a town that has become the darling of the decorative arts for its "Cody-style" Western designs.

"There is the feeling that anything can happen here. There is a wonderful sense of recklessness and a notion that anything is possible.

"The West has always come in and out of focus in the consciousness of America," she added. "As far as the popular culture is concerned, what we are seeing now is a whole new definition of Western style. It's as far away from Dale Evans as you can get. . . . It is quite sophisticated, and what is happening here in Cody has kicked off a whole revival."

Last fall, Cody was the site of the first annual Western Design Conference, what fourth-generation rancher-turned-craftsman J. Mike Patrick said was a formal attempt to create a "school of thought" about the future direction of Western design in the decorative arts.

"Our practitioners are self-taught, self-created," said Mr. Patrick, "This is exploding right now."

Western designers, many of whom are based in Cody's Yellowstone Country, are fashioning clothing and furnishings that are showing up in shops and showrooms from San Francisco to New York. And they are using materials found right outside Cody: lodgepole pine, willow, antler, pine burl and rawhide.

"No part of the United States has ever captured the hearts and minds of the American people as has the West. From cowboys and Indians to Buffalo Bill, bucking broncos and covered wagons, the West has meant opportunity and freedom," said Mr. Patrick. "The West has defined for generations of Americans what we dream to be our national character."

In their newest book, "Way Out West," Jane and Michael Stern, chroniclers of American pop culture, explore the myth and kitsch of the West.

"The West has been a passing fad since early 1910, since Teddy Roosevelt with his Rough Riders said there was this exotic place called the West," said Mrs. Stern, who had just come in from running her horse -- at her farm in Connecticut. "It's constantly being discovered and rediscovered.

"I think this represents a revolt against '80s values, yuppie-driven values. There is something about the mythology of the cowboy, the mythology of the democracy of the West, where there is an emphasis placed on good, on values, on principles and integrity," she added. "People are tired of the fakery and phoniness of the last decade, and they are turning to something that is tried and true."

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