We spoke to Allison Merritt, Executive Director of the Western Design Conference, which kicks off its 26th year this weekend in Jackson Hole.
With the Teton Mountain Range as its backdrop, the annual Western Design Exhibit + Sale sets the stage for the best in Western furniture, fashion, and home interiors. It’s at this four-day showcase in Jackson Hole (taking place this year from Thursday, September 6, thru Sunday, September 9) that trends emerge, artisans make a name for themselves, and lucky folks take home the gorgeous, custom creations on display. I asked Allison Merritt, executive director of the massive show, to give us the inside scoop on what to watch for this year.
Cowboys & Indians: What are you most looking forward to at this year's Western Design Exhibit + Sale?
Allison Merrit: Seeing old friends and making new ones! The Western Design Exhibit + Sale has become an annual homecoming for us and the many returning artists. We reconnect with each other, catch up on personal life events, share ideas, and get renewed inspiration for our work. We also have the excitement of meeting all the new artists who are participating for the first time.
C&I: We're looking for predictions. What home and design trends do you think might emerge at the show this year?
Merritt: I never try to predict what design trends will be! Western Design artists produce and unveil one-of-a-kind works that often set trends, and it often is much later that the mass market catches up. The 20 designers selected for the fashion show always feature an incredible range of artistic expression on the runway during the Opening Preview Party.
C&I: Last year was the big 25—this year it's 26 (Congrats, we just turned 25 this year ourselves!). Are there any new bells or whistles that haven't been part of the event lineup in the past?
Merritt: Our Designer Show House is in its fourth year, a relatively new addition, and an exceptional presentation in the center of the Exhibit + Sale where interior designers create rooms using many functional art pieces. This year we have partnered with the Jackson Hole Art Association, exhibiting student works and fashion designs they created during a summer camp. We have extended Saturday hours—from 4 to 7 pm it's Christmas in September, a benefit night and happy hour celebration during which time participating artists donate 10 percent of their sales to the Jackson Hole Art Association.
This is where you come to find something that speaks to you and that you will enjoy using for years to come.
C&I: Let's talk about the makers and artists. Are there any up-and-coming exhibitors you're excited to have involved this year?
Merritt: Of course! A fabulous custom hat maker from Oregon, Havstad Hat Company; Victor DiNovi, woodworking; a multi-talented antler artist/designer, Shawn Rivett Designs; leather artists P. Gaddi and Burns Saddlery, fifth generation saddle makers; for fishing enthusiasts, two artists presenting work are Sierra Nets and Hollifield Bamboo Fly Rods; Figs Eyewear in woodworking creates custom sunglasses. These are only a few of the new artists, there are many more equally exciting new artists this year. It's a very full show!
C&I: What about the mainstays? Who are the makers that never fail to disappoint in their work here, year after year?
Merritt: Where do I start? Supaya Gray Wolfe, Many Tears; Norseman Designs West; Henneford Fine Furniture; J. L. Blair Saddlery; Oxbows Rustic Furniture; Helga's Design; Elyse Allen Textiles; Gossamer Wings Santa Fe; J. Hill Felt; and this is just a few of our talented family of artists.
C&I: Western design evokes such classic prints and iconic patterns that seem to never go out of style. What element of that aesthetic does this event showcase better or more than any other event?
Merritt: The West represents our love and respect for nature and the preservation of natural habitats, and this is exhibited in our artists use of the finest quality natural materials—leather, wood, metal, fur, natural fibers. No other venue showcases such beautiful craftsmanship with natural materials.
C&I: It's four days of being surrounded by gorgeous furnishings and artwork in Jackson Hole—be honest, are you guilty of shopping (and walking away with) any home goods for yourself?
Merritt: Absolutely! I always shop, for myself, my home, and others—and there is no guilt involved. Just the opposite! It is so important to support our amazingly talented and dedicated artists, and it gives me such joy to live with their work. Machined, mass produced items can never convey the beautiful hand of the creator. I have purchased all types of clothing—wraps, coats, dresses, sweaters, belts, handbags, exquisite jewelry, hats, scarves, and gloves, and of course, boots! For my home I have chairs, benches, clothing racks, a dining table, pillows, Indian beaded dolls, dresses, and a horse mask.
C&I: Splurge or steal—what items here are worth it for folks to spend their hard-earned paycheck on? Conversely, where can people get a lot of bang for their bucks?
Merritt: If you are looking for something cheap, a throwaway item, go to a discount store. When you want something that is really special and unique, something that will always give you joy, large or small, find that at the Western Design Conference. You can't help but be inspired by the creativity of the Exhibit + Sale; this is where you come to find something that speaks to you and that you will enjoy using for years to come. Here you will purchase directly from the artist, the Western Design Exhibit + Sale takes no commission. There are works at all price points, and when you find that special item that is like no other, a splurge becomes a steal!
C&I: We've hardly mentioned Jackson Hole—what is it about this place that helps make WDC what it is?
Merritt: We always say the this is a show as unique as its surroundings. When you are here it is evident that there is a Western spirit that is in all of us. Right outside our door you're enveloped by the Teton Mountain Range.
C&I: Last question. What's been your favorite memory at WDC over the years?
Merritt: Seeing the juried entries unveiled each year never ceases to amaze me. Seeing my twin daughters on the runway of the fashion show is also a highlight. They love the Western Design Exhibit + Sale and tell me that one day they want to work with me. Guess we'll be chatting for another 25 years!
Photography: Courtesy Charlie Goodstrike; courtesy Western Design Conference; courtesy Victor DiNovi; courtesy Gemstone Tile; courtesy Old Hickory Furniture; courtesy P. Gaddi; courtesy Shawn Rivett Designs. Hide rug in cover image by Charlie Goodstrike; Turquoise tile in scrolling image by Gemstone Tile.