Historical romance of the West with its cowboy mystique and wide-open freedom are part of draw for visitors from around the world to Jackson Hole September event
Clockwise from top left: WDC executive director Allison Merritt; JW Bennett displays an array of custom hats and hatbands; the showroom floor at Snow King Events Center in Jackson Hole.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming – May TBD, 2023 – While Western design may be having a pop-culture moment thanks to the popularity of TV’s “Yellowstone” and its multiple spinoffs, Allison Merritt, executive director of the Western Design Conference Exhibit + Sale (WDC) in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, sees something deeper in the universal appeal of the Western lifestyle and design. “Like a great pair of cowboy boots, Western design, fashion and art is accepted anywhere,” she says. Merritt knows quite a bit about the ubiquitous nature of Western style. Her annual four-day event, returning to the Snow King Events Center in Jackson, September 7 – 10, 2023, for its 31st appearance, draws thousands of attendees to view and purchase the one-of-a-kind, handcrafted work of talented makers, this year representing 28 states from across the country.
“The comfort of Western design feels like home,” Merritt says. “People are drawn to the historical romance of the West, its cowboy mystique and its sense of wide-open freedom.” Like the functional art displayed at the WDC each year, people feel a connection to a Western sensibility because of its handmade heritage. Whether a leather jacket, a cowboy hat or a hand-carved wooden chair, finely crafted pieces, custom made one at a time, are both artistic and useful, and can be passed down through generations.
Clockwise from top left: On the WDC fashion runway with Candy Woolley Accessories; JW Bennett hat pairs with Western fashion from Terra; handmade boots by Tres Outlaw (PC: Backlight Creative).
A comfortable blend of looks also contributes to the Mountain West’s universal appeal. “A modern outfit accented with a statement turquoise necklace from Native American artist “Bo” Joe Oreland Jr. is a nice way to mix styles,” she says. And that Western favorite, fringe, shows up in a variety of ways – some timeless and some boldly contemporary – on the WDC fashion runway. Similarly, in interiors and architecture, a synthesis of the clean modern lines in glass and steel integrated with the coziness of traditional fabrics, rugged leather and reclaimed timber informs today’s Mountain Modern design. “Whether as part of a wardrobe or a home, it’s the mix of heirloom and modern with its uniqueness and customization that draws people in,” Merritt says.
You may not think of Virginia as cowboy-hat-wearing land, but Merritt uses her mother, who lives in that state, as an example. “She gets stopped everywhere in her hometown when she wears her JW Bennett custom hat to shade herself from the sun’s rays. It’s beautiful but also useful; it’s functional art that can be appreciated anywhere in the world. It may be designed by a multi-generational Wyoming fashion artist, but everyone can appreciate the connection to the land embraced by cowboy heritage,” she says.
L to R: Montana sculptor Tyrel Johnson shares stories behind his brass and wood creations; intricate hand-stitching adds heirloom appeal to beaded bandanas from Jackson Hole Beadworks.
People also love the style of the Mountain West because of its individuality. You can see it at the WDC; some women come dressed in urban high fashion and others fit in just as well in their cowboy boots and jeans. In the same way, the unique artists’ statement pieces are displayed throughout the WDC Exhibit + Sale show floor. Each of these juried entries is vying for nearly $20,000 in cash awards presented by the WDC and its sponsors. With variety that can range from a simple, small pair of earrings to a full-size sheep wagon, suitable for a backyard guesthouse, comes an equally wide range of price points for every type of shopper. “One-of-a-kind doesn’t mean unaffordable.
L to R: Jewelry designer Patrick Flynn’s petal cuff, Brian Crandall creates artwork from up cycled horseshoes.
The five judges who decide which artists take home excellence in design awards in the WDC’s annual juried exhibition come from a wide range of backgrounds and geographic areas, holding fast to a theme of timelessness and reflecting a medley of Western expertise. This year, the WDC welcomes to the judges panel, Jeffrey Dungan, a nationally renowned author and architect who approaches each project as a concert between the client and the landscape.
At the WDC, it’s the artists in their dedication to traditional methods and materials – and constant innovation and inspiration – who help shape the future of Western design. “In a world full of disposable, mass-produced items, the artistry of handmade and the inspiration produced by the back-office collaboration of artists increases the appeal of the WDC. The show is like a big family who throws a celebratory reunion each year,” says Merritt. The WDC focus unites artists directly with patrons and takes no commission. Each year only 100 artists are accepted by the jury selection committee. Known and returning artists as well as artists new to the WDC have the opportunity to unveil their one-of-a-kind creations in fashion, leather, jewelry, furniture, metal woodworking and home accents in downtown Jackson Hole.
Rodeo announcer and master leather carver Wayne Wise tools his Bull Skullz out of his Texas studio.
Western Design Conference tickets are $30 for an Exhibit + Sale day-pass, allowing admission to the Snow King showroom from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., and including daily happy hour. VIP early entry at 5:30p.m. with reserved seating at the Preview Party + Fashion Show is available for $175 per person. General Admission for the Preview Party + Fashion Show is $100, 6 – 10 p.m; both include an open bar and catering. An itinerary of the four-day event can be seen here.
About the Western Design Conference Exhibit + Sale:
Celebrating 31 years in 2023, the annual Western Design Conference Exhibit + Sale is a four-day, multimillion-dollar event that brings together craftspeople, collectors, interior designers, architects, and fashion designers with a love of the West. The Western Design Conference was founded in Cody, Wyoming, to promote contemporary artists working in historical American craft methods. The Western Design Conference Exhibit + Sale moved to Jackson Hole in 2007, where Executive Director Allison Merritt continues the strong commitment to Western arts in Wyoming while expanding the reach of the show. Additional information, including schedules and tickets, is available at westerndesignconference.com and on Facebook and Instagram.