Monday, September 25, 2017

Legends of Design: Elsie de Wolfe

In this series of blog postings about Legends of Interior Design, I would be remiss if I did not, at some point, mention groundbreaking designer and mother of the modern interior design profession, Elsie de Wolfe.

Born Ella Anderson de Wolfe in New York City in 1865 (although her Wiki page wonders if she was born in 1859), she was educated in Scotland and was even presented at court to Queen Victoria! Anecdotes from her childhood suggest that de Wolfe was headed for design greatness early on: in her autobiography AFTER ALL, de Wolfe recounts how she threw a temper tantrum when her mother redecorated a room with a heavy, dark, William Morris wallpaper, hurling herself to the ground, beating her hands on the floor, and crying out, "It's so ugly! It's so ugly!"

Upon returning to the United States, she participated in many amateur theatrical productions and through that circle she met Elisabeth “Bessie” Marbury, nearly a decade older. Marbury had already created for herself a successful career as a literary agent and theatrical manager, with Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw among her clients. The two became lovers with Marbury encouraging and supporting de Wolfe in a career as a professional actress. Elsie de Wolfe loved couture fashion and the pair would regularly travel to Europe every summer to buy clothing collections from celebrated designers of the day (Elsie had it in her theatrical contracts that she would be allowed to wear her own couture clothing for stage productions, and her high-end fashions eclipsed her mediocre acting, making her a much-copied model for high society women in New York) and it is there that de Wolfe became enamored with 18th century design and French Louis XVI furniture and interiors. Considered gauche and passé at that time, this style was the exact opposite of the prevailing Victorian tastes of the day which relied upon heavy velvet drapery, dark moody interiors, and bloated ornate furniture. In contrast, de Wolfe was drawn to the delicate Neoclassical fluted legs of smaller framed chairs and settees, the light white and pastel colors, and a general sense of airiness.

Inspired, de Wolfe set out to banish the dark and heavy Victorian gloom of the Irving Place home she and Marbury shared. She had dark woodwork painted white, up came the patchwork of Persian rugs on the floor, and heavy velvet drapes were replaced wth light muslin curtains. This bright, light transformation was like a breath of fresh uncluttered air for all their society friends including Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, Stanford White, and J.P. Morgan's daughter Anne. Below are before and after photos of de Wolfe and Marbury's dining room.

Based on that success, de Wolfe began getting requests from her friends to refresh their spaces as well but it wasn't until 1905 that de Wolfe became known as a true, professional interior designer--the first well-known interior designer in the world. Architect Stanford White was designing The Colony Club, a women's socialite club on Madison Avenue started by suffragettes, and brought de Wolfe in to design the interior spaces. At the time, her Trellis Room at The Colony Club, designed to give the illusion of an outdoor garden room complete with ivy on the walls, chintz fabric, wicker furniture, and lighting to mimic daytime, was a stunning achievement.

Thus a design legend was born, albeit accidentally. While the profession of interior design can be traced back as early as 1900, de Wolfe was first famous designer to make a name in the industry. For this reason, she is known as the mother of interior design. She was one of the forces responsible for moving tastes away from the Victorian (she once did an all-white room, quite radical for the time--and was the first to pair animal prints such as tiger stripes on French antiques!). She went on to design houses for some notable clients including Amy Vanderbilt, Anne Morgan, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Condé Nast, Paul-Louis Weiller, Cole Porter,and Henry Clay and Adelaide Frick (de Wolfe designed all the interiors at the Frick House which now houses the Frick Collection in Manhattan).

When she moved to Beverly Hills in the 1930s, she employed a young artist she had met at a dinner party to help with the design of her new home...a young man named Tony Duquette who later became an interior design legend himself. Stay tuned to hear all about him!

Happy designing!

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