Skip to content

Pieces of the West

    by Besty Lehndorff
    Rocky Mountain News
    January 7, 2006

    On the 100th anniversary of the National Western Stock Show, Wild West design is more alive than ever, with Chris Chapman, John Gallis, and others on the leading edge. Together they have carved and shaped common materials, such as tree stumps, cowhide, iron and wool, into some of the most sought-after designs. Their work costs thousands of dollars and often is available only through interior designers. But they are influencing many who have designed less-costly furnishings and accessories. Many Western-style designs are available at this year’s stock show.

    “Out here, there is time to think during long drives down dirt roads,” says Thea Marx, author of Contemporary Western Design – High-Style Furniture & Interiors. “You aren’t on the freeway in L.A. being bombarded by honking horns and cell phones. You can really allow yourself to fall into the universe. You’re surrounded by it and it just comes to you.”

    Marx was executive director of the Western Design Conference in Cody, Wyo., from 1997 to 2003 and generated a huge following for Chapman, furniture-maker Gallis and other artisans.

    “I can’t even draw a stick horse,” the 35-year-old says. “But I could provide the ability to show these artists to the world.”John Gallis Furniture-maker, Norseman Designs West, Cody, Wyo.
    Style: refined Western

    Gallis had no idea he would become a pivot point for Western design when he moved from Long Island, N.Y., to Cody 11 years ago, gambling on a career as a furniture-maker.

    “When I first came here, everything was dominated by fence-post headboards,” Gallis says. “And you can get very tired of splintered furniture.”

    Invited to Marx’s conference in 1997, Gallis quickly became a major draw with his fluid wood chairs and desks.

    These days, his working materials are old tree stumps from the high plains and exotic hardwoods – so dense and tightly grained that Gallis and his four-man crew make only 12 to 14 pieces a year. At that rate, a suite of custom-made furniture commands as much as $140,000, a desk about $20,000.

    For a dining table, Gallis found a 340-year-old juniper stump out on the plains around Cody and wrestled it into the back of his truck. (He has a permit to gather firewood on federal land.)

    It was rock-hard, weather-beaten and full of dirt. To turn it into a base for a dining table, Gallis spent painstaking hours grinding and sanding every surface until the roots gleamed like pulled taffy. For a top, he built a huge disk out of walnut and chiseled light-reflecting facets into the edge. The last touch was a rim of short branches around the table’s circumference, each one sanded and polished by hand.

    “We sign each piece, and I just don’t want to sign something that I’m not proud of,” the 57-year-old says.