Elsie deWolfe (1859—1950) is credited with the “invention” of interior decoration, a statement not entirely true. The profession of interior decorator existed as early as 1900, several years before she received her first commission, The Colony Club in New York. Prior to that, interiors were largely done by architects, who employed upholsterers, woodworkers and artisans to flesh out their commissions and by the late 19th century, design firms such as the Herter Brothers were decorating for well-heeled clients. Elsie deWolfe however, the most famed art of interior decoration 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 deWolfe, 1944
The Colony Club, New York
she was privately educated in New York and in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she lived with some 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 deWolfe’s preeminent talent was aptitude allowed her to gain favor with rich 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 once rejecting the Victorian esthetic of her very unhappy childhood while employing fresh colors, a penchant for 18th Century French-style furnishings and accessories, and the use of mirrors to visually expand and sparkle the living spaces, and the elimination of extraneous clutter, and the inclusion of more relaxed fabric patterns in her designs. Chinoizerie, chintz, stripes, animal upholstery and fake finishes were important components of her pallett. “I opened the doors and windows of America, and let the air and sunshine in”, said she. 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 Mr. White. Using an outdoor garden pavilion as inspiration, the club had a very very 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 some other magazines. Over the next couple of years she designed interiors for fancy homes, clubs and businesses, and her statement 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 of previously published articles written by a 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
her 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);andin 1901 she brought the play “The Way of the World” to the Victoria Theater and toured the U.S. in its leading role. She liked stage decorating interested her, and at the suggestion of Sara Cooper Hewitt, de Wolfe launched another career as an interior designer and lived for many years with Elizabeth Marbury, theatrical agent and daughter of a prominent New York attorney, in 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 Vila Trianon, where she remained until her death in 1950. Her autobiography was published in 1935.
Severence Hall, Elsie deWolfe and Elizabeth Marbury’s Vila Trianon restoration