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.
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.