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Elsie de Wolfe, Vanguard of Modern Design


by Carol Steffan • January 9, 2019

Elsie de Wolfe (1859—1950) is largely credited with the “invention” of interior design, a statement not entirely true. The profession of interior design/interior decorator existed as early as 1900, several years before de Wolfe received her first commission, The Colony Club in New York. Prior to that, interiors were largely decorated by architects, who employed upholsterers, woodworkers and other artisans to flesh out their commissions. By the late 19th century, design firms such as the Herter Brothers were decorating for well-heeled clients. Elsie de Wolfe was, however, the most famed practitioner of the art of interior design during the opening years of the 20th century, in some part due to her commercial and social contacts in New York, Paris and London.

Elsie de Wolfe, 1944

 

The Colony Club, New York

de Wolfe was privately educated in New York and in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she lived with maternal relatives. She was introduced to London society in 1883, where she was presented at Queen Victoria’s court. She referred to herself as “a rebel in an ugly world”, and de Wolfe’s preeminent talent was that of an innovator. This aptitude allowed her to gain favor with wealthy clients such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Amy Vanderbilt by transfiguring dimly lit, heavily curtained and darkly furnished spaces into more intimate ones, at once consciously rejecting the Victorian esthetic of her somewhat unhappy childhood while employing fresh colors, a penchant for 18th Century French-style furnishings and accessories, the use of mirrors to visually expand and convey sparkle to living spaces, and the elimination of extraneous clutter, as well as the inclusion of more relaxed fabric patterns in her designs. Chinoiserie, chintz, fresh stripes, animal-print upholstery and faux finishes were important components of de Wolfe’s palette. “I opened the doors and windows of America, and let the air and sunshine in”, said de Wolfe. Nowhere is this more evident than in The Colony Club, a social gathering space for women located at 120 Madison Avenue in New York, a 1905 commission which de Wolfe secured with the help of architect Stanford White. Using an outdoor garden pavilion as inspiration, the club had a decidedly feminine esthetic, employing pale walls, lightweight window coverings, tile floors and white wicker furnishings. The Colony Club launched de Wolfe’s career and she became more or less a household name through articles which appeared in Good Housekeeping, and other magazines. Over the next several years she designed interiors for prestigious homes, clubs and businesses, and her stated credo was “I believe in plenty of optimism and white paint, comfortable chairs with lights beside them, open fires on the hearth and flowers wherever they ‘belong,’ mirrors and sunshine in all rooms.” In 1913 de Wolfe published The House in Good Taste, a book based on previously published articles written for her by ghost writer Ruby Ross Wood , in it redefining “taste” as a middle class virtue.

Beverly Hills home for Countess Dorothy di Frasso (1936) designed by Elsie de Wolfe

Elsie’s first career choice had been as an actress, and after her father’s death in 1895 left her in difficult financial circumstances, she performed in such New York productions as “A Cup of Tea” and “Sunshine” (1886), Thermidor (1891); in 1901 she brought the play “The Way of the World” to the Victoria Theater and toured the U.S. in its leading role. Stage decorating interested her, and at the suggestion of Sara Cooper Hewitt, de Wolfe launched her career as an interior designer.

de Wolfe lived for many years with Elizabeth Marbury, theatrical agent and daughter of a prominent New York attorney, in what was largely accepted as a lesbian relationship. In 1903 they bought and began restoring the Villa Trianon at Versailles, France. During World War I de Wolfe won two medals, the Croix de Guerre and Legion of Honor for her work with gas burn patients. In 1926 she married Sir Charles Mendl, Press Attache to the British Embassy in Paris. The couple entertained together, but lived in separate residences. At the outset of World War II, de Wolfe and her husband moved to Hollywood. Afterwards she returned to Villa Trianon, where she remained until her death in 1950. Her autobiography “After All” was published in 1935.

 

Severance Hall, Elsie de Wolfe and Elizabeth Marbury’s Villa Trianon restoration

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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