Fighting Bear Antiques was founded in Jackson, Wyo., in 1978. The business operated for many years as a general-line antique store, in a small building off the town square. Back then, owner Terry Winchell always spent several months of the year combing all parts of the United States for unique and quality merchandise. In the early 1990s, the focus of the business shifted to rustic Western furniture, Native American artifacts and Plains Indian beadwork, Navaho textiles and upper-end Mission furniture, such as Stickley, Limbert and Roycroft, and of course, Western lodge furniture from Thomas Molesworth.
Terry Winchell grew up in western Nebraska/eastern Wyoming, and his love affair with Native American started when he visited Colonel Cook with his grandfather and saw Colonel Cook’s amazing collection, which also opened his eyes to the beauty of ranch-style furniture. In 2006, Terry married Claudia Bonnist, who grew up in Westchester, N.Y. (Her sister is Vivien Cord of the renowned Cord Shows). Bonnist found Jackson to be a stunning place to live and work, and the pair meets new customers daily during the high summer season, because the valley is located near the South Gate of Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park, some of the top tourist destinations in the world.
“My introduction to Native American beadwork was with strike-a-lights, beautiful little beaded bags that they would carry on their belts to hold what they would use to make fire. We have well over 100 examples,” Bonnist told Antiques and The Arts Weekly.
If Bonnist has a fondness for the diminutive and intricate, Winchell has a passion for the massive, substantial lodge furniture that characterized many of the surrounding ranches. He still owns the first piece of rustic furniture he ever bought, a wardrobe/desk/dresser built by Mr Gabbey, circa 1925. He paid $25 for the piece, which has mosaic inlay and looks Adirondack.
“The same guys who built the cabins in the summer would build the furniture in the winter,” said Winchell, who pointed out that this was a necessity, since Jackson never had a railroad, and shipping furniture was costly.
It was Thomas Molesworth who put Winchell on the map for rustic furniture, though — a Cody, Wyo., furniture maker, who at the peak of his production employed 35 craftsmen and sold through high-end outlets, including Abercrombie & Fitch, Gump’s, Marshall Fields and Brandeis Dept. Store in Omaha Neb.
“He used bright colors. He made it fun. There is a lot of humor in his furniture, which he did on purpose,” said Winchell, pointing out that Molesworth trained at the Art Institute of Chicago. “He was a proponent of a simple lifestyle and bringing the outdoors in.”
“All the great old hotels and lodges of the West bought Molesworth furnishings,” said Winchell, “including his most famous commission, the old lodge in Glenwood Springs, Colo.” That magnificent collection eventually went to auction at Christie’s, with Winchell purchasing about $900,000 worth of furniture from that sale for himself and on behalf of his clients.
Today, based on the same comprehensive decorating principles of Thomas Molesworth, Fighting Bear Antiques tries to help recreate the interiors of the lodges that were popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Both public and private, these interiors were furnished with colorful Navaho rugs, shop-built custom furniture and Native American artifacts, which fit well in the West and help to bring the outside environment into the interior of the homes.
“I want to do everything,” said Winchell. “Navajo textiles — we always have an inventory of 50-75 vintage Navajo textiles — pottery, beadwork. We never sell contemporary or fakes.” He currently has Molesworth burled club chairs, a three-panel screen that Molesworth did with his own hand, and ten keyhole chairs.
In addition to lecturing widely on both Western design and Native American arts, Terry Winchell has written two books, Thomas Molesworth, The Pioneer of Western Design and Living with American Indian Art, the Hirschfield Collection, both published by Gibbs Smith.
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