Collectors Can’t Get Enough of Thomas Molesworth’s Craft Furniture
In the early 1990s, Ruth Bloom found bucolic inspiration in the most unlikely of places: New York City. Having recently purchased a piece of land in Sun Valley, Idaho, Bloom—a collector and former gallery owner—began scouring the market for furniture for the future residence. Bloom had a specific aesthetic in mind: Think rustic wood pieces and pops of Native American–inspired patterns—ranch-style craft works with a touch of camp. “The property in Sun Valley is the high desert, truly the West, and I spent my childhood traveling the West in a trailer,” Bloom says. “The vernacular of the West was really embedded in my mind.” Turns out, there was a designer who checked all of the boxes with ease. At an antiques shop in Greenwich Village, Bloom made her first purchase—a carved wooden chair by Thomas Molesworth.
From then on, Bloom became obsessed with Thomas Molesworth, visiting antiques shops, auctions, and dealers to gather enough for her 15,000-square-foot home, which was completed in 1998. Molesworth was not one for minimalism: His cushy club chairs don cushions of Chimayo woven textiles, sturdy tables are accented with burls, and jewel-tone leathers rimmed with painted motifs adorn even the simplest seats. This Western high design was frequently commissioned by the affluent country-goers during the height of Molesworth’s career, from the 1930s to the 1950s. In an effort to downsize, 65 lots from Bloom and her husband Jake’s collection of Molesworth furniture will be offered through Sotheby’s New York tomorrow—the first time in more than 20 years that a dedicated Molesworth auction of this scale has taken place. Sotheby’s and the premier dealer of Molesworth agree that despite its niche aesthetic, there is a solid market clamoring to get its hands on his rare pieces.
Unlike many collectors who acquire pieces gradually, the Blooms amassed much of their Molesworth within a few years, all of it intended for use in the Sun Valley residence. Bold in her decorating approach, Bloom says, “I never planned where the pieces would go.” Kimberly Miller—a specialist at Sotheby’s and the head of the Molesworth sale—adds that this style of collecting is not unusual when it comes to Molesworth. “Most often, we see that Molesworth pieces are collected on a large scale by pockets of private, very dedicated collectors, largely intended for use in secondary homes out West,” she says.
Beth Moritz—a Chicago-based collector of Molesworth who owns more than 20 pieces—bought her first Molesworth for her family’s Jackson, Wyoming, getaway. “It’s sort of a piece of authenticity to ground the home and the atmosphere in the land of the Wild West,” Mortiz says. “And it’s wildly comfortable.”
However, it’s rare to see a house full of Molesworth. Terry Winchell of Fighting Bear Antiques—a premier dealer who has sold to the Blooms—explains that this is due both to collectors’ style preferences and the lack of available pieces. Despite his lengthy career as a craftsman, Winchell estimates that Molesworth produced only between 8,000 and 9,000 pieces. “He was a small craft shop . . . it was never mass-produced,” Winchell says. “It wasn’t like Nakashima, where he had 30 people making things.” For example, Moritz’s Wyoming home isn’t strictly Molesworth; she commissioned local artisans and other makers for other pieces of furniture.
This sale is, no doubt, a shake-up for Sotheby’s. Though a far cry from the house’s standard design sales—which, like comparable sales across the major auction houses, represent a similar cast of (mostly European) characters—Sotheby’s still sees a dedicated Molesworth sale as a sound investment. “The chance to present such an offering is a landmark event as an offering of this size, diversity, and quality has not occurred in the marketplace for more than 20 years” says Miller. “As a result, we jumped at the opportunity to present this incredible collection to the wider market.” The most recent dedicated Molesworth sale was at Christie’s in 1995—a single-owner sale full of private commissions from the Old Lodge Ranch in Colorado—where Mrs. Bloom purchased several pieces. (“I bought the doors, I bought the railings,” Bloom says, “when I got off the phone after the auction, my ear was so swollen because I was listening so closely!”)
According to Winchell, the market is as hot as ever, fueled by the rarity of Molesworth pieces and the distinct look they provide. “There’s as much demand now, or more, than there was in 1975,” Winchell says. Such is evident in the way collectors speak about their Molesworth pieces—less as one might discuss a piece of art or high design, and more like one would discuss, well, furniture. “It’s just a comfort level,” Moritz says, citing an armchair as her favorite piece (there’s room for her to sit next to her small dog). “They have soft edges, they’re welcoming, and they’re rustic yet beautiful at the same time.” Bloom puts it simply: “We’ve had big parties at the house with hundreds of people, my daughter got married there, I’ve hosted CEOs of international corporations, and everyone fits in. . . . It’s not only comfy and simple, but you just feel like you could talk to anybody if you’re sitting in a sofa or a chair.” And isn’t that the point?