Handcrafted pieces create a welcoming atmosphere and help a Western home tell a story.
No matter what Western vibe you’re aiming for—Colorado mountain cabin à la Ralph Lauren, Southwestern adobe chic, or refined ranch rustic—one of the secrets to really making your décor come alive lies in handmade pieces. We talked with Jeremiah Young, the creative director and principal of the interior design firm Kibler & Kirch, in Billings, Montana, about how “handmade” elevates the ambience of a Western home. And we explored the handcrafted appeal of a Wyoming ranch that remains Young’s favorite project.
Cowboys & Indians: You’re a big fan of using handcrafted items in the client homes you design. Why do you rely on handmade over mass-produced, and how important is that in creating the ambience you’re after?
Jeremiah Young: It’s crucial. Over and above the function of a space is to be satisfying to the human condition, and there’s no better way to give a place some soul than to gather up, procure, and place some handmade things in a house. There’s a project I did not long ago where everything, down to every screw, was handmade. There are all of these small moments that don’t always come to the level of consciousness, but all of these small things add up to giving a lot of soul to a space. I think there’s no greater thing than to say something was made by human hands. There’s a big difference between something that’s machine-made and things touched by human hands.
C&I: Tell us more about how handmade pieces give a space “soul.”
Young: It’s a sense of history. A sense of place. A sense of quality that’s been vetted over time, so the solution that was found for this door, this piece hardware, or maybe it’s even a vase or a footstool, this is a solution that somewhere down the line, there was a tradition developed of how to do it and how it was constructed. Because machines are relatively new in our history, there’s a collective soul of objects and tradition, the way things are constructed. Most of the time, the old ways are best.
C&I: How do you go about choosing handcrafted pieces for your projects. What do you look for?
Young: You try to use materials that get translated into objects, wood or stone or metal or bronze. If you select things that get better over time, through use and through us touching them and using them, they look better and become better with age. The objective with handmade things is to have them look their best when they’re quite old.
C&I: What are your personal favorites when it comes to handmade elements in a room?
Young: Things made of leather. Original art—the ultimate handmade thing. And case goods. Wooden furniture. There’s no machine that can make a curved, bow-front English dresser. It has to be done by hand.
C&I: Where do you stand on mixing contemporary elements with handmade Western ones?
Young: It’s sometimes really nice to contrast the two—a coffee table with a glass top and on top is an old bowl that’s been used and has gouges and knicks and darkness around the rim because humans have touched it and used it. Handmade elements can be mundane objects made of wood, elevated to a piece of art.
C&I: Besides being pleasurable for the eye, how can handmade things help to tell our own personal history?
Young: All of these objects have a story. Whether it’s that object and who used it and how, or the story about why that object even exists—this ladderback chair, this particular style. Then you take it a step further: As designers, we’re telling that story, too. Our interiors, the whole of them, are telling stories of place and material and the tradition that you’re working in.
C&I: What are some key handmade pieces that you rely on again and again for your projects?
Young: A tooled ottoman, a leather-framed mirror, a great leather bag of some kind. Our recipe is to have a sofa in fabric because we find that to be more comfortable, and pairs of leather chairs. I’ll take a great leather chair over a leather sofa any day. New World Trading makes some great hand-tooled leather ottomans. We’ve placed more of these in homes than I can count. House of Mercier—from Peru—is my go-to for leather frames, which we have used to make so many pieces of art sing. They are a great resource for mirrors as well. It’s hard to beat Hancock & Moore and Hickory Chair for leather chairs, but my favorite styles are from smaller, family-run companies like Classic Leather and McKinley Leather. I call on them to do custom things that the bigger companies just won’t do. Of course, I also like to use Molesworth-style chairs, and Tim Lozier at How Kola Furniture can make anything we can dream up in that genre.
C&I: You said you’d take a leather chair over a leather sofa, but I happen to know you have a fondness for a good Chesterfield. …
Young: True. There’s a Chesterfield from McKinley Leather I particularly like. Tufts like that, among other things, can only be done by hand. It’s such a handsome piece, and we love using things like that in our interiors.
C&I: What do all of the handcrafted pieces you’re drawn to have in common?
Young: I can close my eyes and visualize it. It’s the quality of an old saddle that’s been used, that’s burnished with marks on it, and it’s been oiled and cared for over time. That same quality could show up in a table or in a chair or in a lamp or in the handle of your favorite handbag or satchel. Things that are well-used but beautifully cared for. Things that are warm and welcoming.
C&I: How would you describe your style and approach to design?
Young: I revel in the challenge of pulling out from my clients what’s really satisfying to them. Sometimes that leads to a rustic path, and sometimes it’s a contemporary path. But one thing we always have is an interesting mix of old and new and an interesting mix of styles. My favorite pieces of furniture are ones that I return to over and over again. You can’t exactly pin down what that style is—it’s that chair that’s a little art deco or Western or contemporary but ends up fitting in different interiors. So, in terms of what my style is, it’s the art of the mix, the challenge of the mix.
C&I: What’s the key to finding the right handmade items for our home?
Young: Find things that you’re not afraid to touch or interact with. You know that chair has been sat in a thousand times. You don’t worry about sitting in that chair. It’s the thing you get in the West that you don’t get in the East or South, that casualness of things. I grew up in Tennessee, but my family would buy the highest quality they could afford and really take care of it. Everything was immaculately clean. You didn’t go into the living room but once a year, and it was perfectly preserved. It’s not like that in the West. We use our rooms, and we may not even fluff that cushion.
C&I: Tell us about the Big Horn Ranch project in Wyoming. The whole thing—from that fabulous front porch to the interior walls, doors, cabinets, hardware, and furnishings—has that welcoming handcrafted feel. How did you achieve that vision?
Young: This project is my favorite place I’ve had the chance to work on through the years. In part, it’s because of the homeowner—who has amazing taste and was patient enough to let us find the perfect things—but especially, because it has such soul. It’s unpretentious and unassuming in many ways, but everywhere you look there’s something made with care and touched by human hands. Down to the smallest detail, that home is thoughtful and uncompromising. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in real quality. There are Molesworth pieces by Marc Taggart, beadwork, hand-painted lighting, some of my favorite pieces by Classic Leather and McKinley Leather, a great collection of art that’s ever-growing, and 100-percent handmade hardware on every drawer, door, window, cabinet, etc. It’s a feast of things made by hand in traditional ways.
C&I: It looks like Old Hickory—that wonderful Indiana company that’s been around since 1899—plays a big role in that home.
Young: Yes! Lots of Old Hickory. This house has the best rustic porch imaginable. It’s a mellow mood, very comfortable, with rocking chairs like you find in national park lodges from the turn of the last century. Time seems to stand still there as you look at the Bighorn Mountains across the valley. I’m not sure if you know this, but I spent from 2018 to 2020 moonlighting as creative director for Old Hickory. I put together their showrooms and trade-show booths and won a few awards competing against companies with big creative teams and really deep pockets. And I did that by using the most authentic approach I could and creating new pieces that took huge inspiration from Old Hickory’s incredible archive. To date, there are about 30 pieces in their line that I designed, including the Woodburst Mirror, which can only be made by carefully choosing the perfect pieces of wood and artfully assembling it by hand. I love that old American company and hope I can contribute to the next 100 years. I can attest that it’s the most handmade furniture you can imagine.
C&I: Besides that fantastic porch, what’s your favorite space at Big Horn Ranch, and what does “handmade” have to do with it?
Young: As much as I love that porch, I also love the reading chairs in the master bedroom that sit near an amazing vignette of a blue painted cabinet below a great painting we took inspiration from. That was actually a really mundane cabinet I reimagined with paint, leather, and nail heads.
C&I: What are you working on now that has exciting possibilities for incorporating handcrafted goods?
Young: I have two once-in-a-lifetime projects at the same time: one in Idaho looking at the Tetons and another in Telluride that sits at 10,000 feet elevation. In both of these projects—which will take years, as good projects always do—we are imagining interiors that incorporate the best of the best artisans in the West, people like metalsmith Glenn Gilmore and leather sculptor Christina Chapman. We’re up to our elbows in figuring out how to collect the most impeccable handmade things, which of course means using the best paintings and sculpture, as well.
C&I: If you had to choose one handmade piece in a room, what would it be?
Young: Art. I’d sit alone in an empty room if there was a piece of art in it. And if money were no object, it would be a Charlie Russell painting.
- Old Hickory: Handcrafted in Shelbyville, Indiana, since 1899 and popular in state and national park lodges. oldhickory.com
- New World Trading: Hand-tooled leather furniture. weworldtrading.com
- McKinley Leather Furniture: “Custom designs handmade by heart” in the U.S. mckinleyleatherfurniture.com
- House of Mercier: Peru-based maker of fine leather frames and furniture. houseofmercier.com
- Hancock & Moore: Upholstery furniture, “the broadest leather inventory in the industry.” hancockandmoore.com
- Hickory Chair Furniture Co.: Custom craftsmanship in furniture since 1911. hickorychair.com
- How Kola Furniture by Tim Lozier: Molesworth reproductions and custom furniture. howkolafurniture.com
- Marc Taggart & Company: Furniture in the Molesworth tradition. marctaggart.com
- Glenn Gilmore: Fine and custom-designed metalsmithing. gilmoremetal.com
- Chapman Design Inc.: Leather bonded furniture, architectural elements, and home accessories by leather sculptor Christina Chapman. chapmandesigninc.com
For more information, visit Jeremiah Young and Kibler & Kirch at kibleranchkirch.com.
From the July 2022 issue.