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DECOR : Western Art Dealer Is No Lone Ranger

From Associated Press

Michael Friedman is at home on the range in Rowayton, Conn.

In the entryway, sombreros, cowboy hats and a hand-tooled leather gun belt hang from a hall tree. An unloaded Winchester pokes out of an umbrella stand.

Two saddles are mounted on stands in the living room, not far from a collection of sheriff’s badges. There’s a Lone Ranger lunch box on a shelf in the kitchen. On one bedroom wall is a magazine rack shaped like a buffalo head, on another a collection of beaded moccasins. There are also watercolors and period photographs of cowboys and cowgirls.

“I find a place for everything,” Friedman says, although things come and go. Friedman, you see, is a dealer in cowboy memorabilia and author of “Cowboy Culture: The Last Frontier of American Antiques” (Schiffer, 1992, $79.95).

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He was born in 1943, the heyday of the Hollywood cowboy, and grew up no closer to the West than Westport, Conn. He says his long-term collecting--and the current bent among other Americans for Western decor--is an exercise in nostalgia. Like other kids he knew, he was crazy about cowboy stuff.

“The games we played were about cowboys, and our heroes were cowboys like the Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy,” he says.

He saw the real West as a student at the University of Arizona but didn’t start collecting until about 1985. As owner of a shop called Artafax in Westport, he traveled to the Rio Grande area to buy painted furniture for his shop and early cowboy items such as chaps, guns, hats, spurs, saddles and boots for himself. He now sells it all at Artafax.

Most collectors prefer either pop culture Hollywood stuff or authentic gear from the late 18th to early 19th centuries.

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“I love it all,” Friedman says. “The entire period starts in 1848, the year that gold was discovered in California, and goes to about 1955, when television and movie cowboys began to lose their glamour.”

Much of what was made has disappeared, but the popularity of the cowboy look has many companies marketing copies and interpretations of furniture, fabrics, rugs and accessories. There are reissues of everything from Indian blankets to Roy Rogers movies.

“We saw Western begin to gain force in the market about three years ago as a Southwest look, and about a year and half ago it migrated into a lodge or log cabin look,” says Dixon Bartlett, vice president of This End Up, a home furnishings company headquartered in Richmond, Va.

“The most recent look is pure straight cowboy,” Bartlett says. “It’s typified by new fabrics like one called ‘Ride em, Cowboy’ and a black and white pony print.”

Most customers opt for accessories rather than furniture. Popular are wrought iron candlesticks and lamps; light fixtures made of antlers; switch plates shaped like cowboys, and fabrics and rugs in patterns based on American Indian designs.

Riding the crest of the Western wave are craftsmen who have been making saddles and boots and furniture “for umpteen years,” according to Christine Mather, author of “True West” (Clarkson Potter, 1992, $40). “All of a sudden, they are being inundated with people who now see these crafts as something unique,” she says.

Although styles vary, Western furniture is almost invariably simple and usually made of pine. In New Mexico and Arizona, a Spanish influence is evident in wrought iron hardware, rough-hewn wood and cutout decorations. Texas furniture is more likely to mimic 19th-Century German pieces because immigrants in large numbers brought their craft, and their furniture, with them.

The characteristic Western style also depends greatly on American Indian crafts, especially Navajo textiles, which furnish patterns for fabrics and rugs.

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Fashions come and go. But the rediscovery of the culture and decorative arts of the Old West is more than a fad, Mather says. While it may wax and wane, it’s here to stay.

“Just like Colonial design,” she says, “it represents an era in the history of American design.”


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