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Elsie de Wolfe: Rebel in an ugly world

As an art historian in a former life I am often asked to write some historical posts. And who better to write about than the woman credited with being the first interior designer: Elsie de Wolfe (1865-1950) pictured wearing Schiaparelli below.

Before de Wolfe  interiors were put together by male architects and upholsterers. Consequently, the interiors of the time were dark, heavy, masculine spaces filed with leather and wood.  Elsie’s style was a complete departure: she used fresh warm colours, loved chintz, initiated America’s love affair with trellised rooms, wicker chairs and 18th century reproduction furniture.

Villa Trianon, Versailles

Self-described as a “rebel in an ugly world” Elsie never trained as a designer or architect, indeed she was an actress who achieved more success as a socialite. In her early 20s she began what was then known as a Boston Marriage with Miss Elisabeth “Bessie” Marbury, a highly influential literary and theatrical agent whose client list and personal friends included the likes of Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and Cole Porter. The first interior which Elsie designed was their own home in Irving Place and it became the ideal platform to showcase her style and talents.

At the age of 40 she launched her career as an interior designer by securing a prestigious commission:  to design the interiors of the Colony Club, New York’s first women’s social club, located on Madison Avenue. She did so through her personal contacts and it was a savvy move as all of New York’s most influential society women including Anne Vanderbilt, Anne Morgan, Florence Harriman and Elsie’s partner, Miss Marbury were founding members. When the Club opened in 1907 its soft feminine feel, created by tiled floors, pale walls, light drapery and chintz and trellised rooms, made Elsie became an overnight sensation.  The iconic trellised Garden Pavilion (below) inspired by 18th century French aesthetics is considered today as one of the turning points in American interior design.

During her career, which spanned some 50 years, Elsie worked for Anne Vanderbilt, Cole Porter, Conde Nast, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Adelaide and Henry Clay Frick. For the latter she decorated the 14 rooms which made up the family and guest quarters of their 5th Avenue residence. Sadly these were demolished and remodelled in 1931, but extant photos reveal luxurious yet cosy rooms filled with Louis XVI furniture. The only surviving room is the Boudoir she designed for Adelaide Frick (now the Boucher Room) complete with its Boucher panelling and Carlin and Riesener furniture. In her dealings with Frick she established a finders fee of 5% for all the furniture she acquired on his behalf; this was additional to her design fee and this way of charging became industry practice.

The year she received the commission for the Colony Club she and Bessie purchased Villa Trianon in Versailles, which she decorated with great aplomb. Elsie also published “The House in Good Taste” in 1914, full of practical and inexpensive decorating tips, which solidified her style. Interestingly, much of her advice is still relevant today: “I believe in plenty of optimism and white paint,” she argued, “comfortable chairs with lights beside them, open fires on the hearth and flowers wherever they ‘belong,’ mirrors and sunshine in all rooms.” She advocated for ambient lighting, flowers, reproduction furniture and declared that decor, including dining chairs, need not match.

In 1926, at the age of 61, she stunned society by marrying the British diplomat Sir Charles Mendl. The Times reported that “the intended marriage comes as a great surprise to her friends . . . when in New York she makes her home with Miss Elizabeth [sic] Marbury at 13 Sutton Place” with whom she continued a relationship until Bessie’s death in 1933.

Later in her life she  was been desired as “probably the first woman to dye her hair blue, to perform handstands to impress her friends, and to cover eighteenth-century footstools in leopard-skin chintzes.” I would have liked her.

Image Credit {1}{2}{3}{4}{5&6}{7}

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Melwitz Folino #

    I’m loving every shot Kate!….This woman was extraordinary and to think of all those rooms so different and yet achieved such unique aesthetic….every time…..I love her own personal style too…..Elsa Schiaparelli fits well in her distinctive look….Thank you for linking me with this I will look into her many interiors with a keen eye indeed…..x

    July 9, 2012
  2. Love her! I’m familiar with her but I didn’t know any of this. What an inspiring woman.

    I can’t get enough of stories of women like this :)

    July 9, 2012
  3. Chris #

    Lovely! Thank you very much for the post, and I hope your little man is feeling better!

    July 10, 2012
  4. kate #

    Thanks for your comments. I am glad you enjoyed the post. It was fun to put together. She seemed to be quite a force. I was thinking the other day what incredible social change she would have witnessed during her lifetime.
    Melwitz, I thought you’d like the Elsa Schiaparelli “Apollo of Versaille” cape ca. 1938 that Elsie is wearing in the first photo. It’s currently on exhibition at the Costume Institute of MET. Here it is in its glory:
    http://omgthatdress.tumblr.com/post/1547733574/elsa-schiaparelli-apollo-of-versaille-cape-ca
    And thanks Chris, Jasper is back in action.

    July 10, 2012
  5. Steve Wong #

    Your article was very informative and enjoyable.
    As Historical Archivist for the (Westin) Hotel St. Francis in San Francisco, I have uncovered and digitized some photo and literature files of work attributed to Ms Elsie de Wolfe’s commercial interior decorating for the Hotel’s “Fable Room” Restaurant. (I believe the work was performed sometime between 1908 – the Hotel’s reopening after the Great 1906 Earthquake and Fire – and 1920s). I am continuing to research for the actual date(s) of her work as part of the St. Francis’ 110th Anniversary commemoration this year (2014). All of Ms de Wolfe’s tell-tale and signature design styles can be seen in the Hotel’s promotional brochure of that time. I only wish that the promotional spread would have indicated a date of publication.

    January 25, 2014
    • kate #

      Steve, That is absolutely fascinating. Will these images be made public? They would be wonderful to see.

      January 26, 2014
      • Steve Wong #

        Kate,

        Yes. We have copyrighted the majority of the digitized files primarily against abusive uses. However, most of our images are available to the public with the simple request to credit the image as “Courtesy of the Westin St. Francis Archives.” The “Fable Room” theme was based using “Aesop’s Fables.” The Hotel St. Francis gave a small “Fable Room” booklet with select passages of verse to guests. I am currently in the process of digitizing the pages.

        Art and Style has and remain key components in the Hotel’s historical, traditional and contemporary image development planning.

        I would be pleased to email these images in high (tif) or low (jpg) resolution formats to you. We would also like to use one of your article photos of Elsie deWolfe in the Hotel’s 2014 historical booklet available to guests as they tour the Hotel’s historical display cases throughout the Hotel’s Tower Lobby. The Hotel also has a collection of commercially commissioned works (quite rare) by Ansel Adams, as he is better known for his natural setting photo work, to capture the Hotel’s interior renovation in the 1930s.

        Regards,

        Steve Wong

        January 26, 2014
  6. kate #

    Steve, That is incredibly generous. I would love to see the images and post them on my blog for my readers to view too.

    February 4, 2014

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