You may not have heard of her, but you have seen her work, it resides in every fashionable interior’s combination of antique and modern, each trompe l’oeil tease and striped pavilion. It’s reflected in every mirrored wall and all those exotic fur accents that we applaud and French fantasy trellis rooms we swoon over. Because Elsie de Wolfe did it first, she wrote the book… literally: The House in Good Taste published in 1914.
Elsie sketched by Cecil Beaton whose career she helped launch in New York.
Elsie became an interior decorator before the term officially existed. Billy Baldwin the ‘Dean of American decorators’ explained: What Elsie did became the foundation for all that was to follow: she purged those Victorian houses of their stuffiness and clutter, rid them of bad pictures and bad furniture, began painting walls white, introduced the cult of the antique and the idea of comfort.
The over flowing Victorian interior (above) was swept away by her new aesthetic which fused modern elegance with the 18th century, an era poorly represented and out of fashion in 1900. Elsie embraced the graceful proportions of antique furniture, the soft colour palettes, whimsical elements and plentiful natural light that made up the 18th century aesthetic. She worked the distant past to create something new and fashionable. Shining a light into the cluttered, dark interiors popular at the time she swept away Victoriana creating a decorative vocabulary that still resonates today.
Elsie’s celebrated New York sitting room in 1911 designed with french style panelling and 18th century furniture and lighting. hhhm, you think it looks a bit dull? well look again.
It’s Warm and inviting. Elsie made quite a journey to make this trophy room.
Elsie was born in the right place at the right time and made it her own, although she put it rather differently stating: I was an ugly child born in an ugly time (1865). America was still a young country, where a new elite wanted trophy homes in a heritage style inspired by the European aristocracy of the ‘old world’. Elsie created schemes which re-defined ‘good taste’ and fashionable living, she then repackaged these into magazine articles and books for the aspiring middle class and made a fortune. The celebrity decorator selling lifestyle dreams started with Elsie de Wolfe.
Famously Elsie was born into the fringes of the elite New York society she longed to join, a plain child dressed in hand me downs. She escaped to England and enjoyed the season where she saw many of the UK’s finest country houses, absorbing their graceful inherited interiors undamaged by the 19th century’s deluge of bad taste.
A damascene moment occurred as she was presented at court dressed in tulle, train and ostrich feathers (above) and felt the thrill of glamour and beauty for the first time she swore: If I am ugly, and I am, I am going to make everything around me beautiful. That will be my life. I could steal for beauty, I could kill for it. Later each interior scheme successfully emphasised a room’s best features, a skill she claimed to have learnt in the face of her own limited physical attributes. Back in the US as an aspiring actress she understood and cultivated the power of fashion, photography and personal style to create her own ‘de Wolfe’ brand of allure and celebrity.
One of her couture Parisian gowns which wowed New Yorkers and helped make her name.
Elsie’s big break was not on stage but in being sent to Paris to learn French and absorb French culture for a period play ‘Thermidor’ set just after the 1789 revolution; she became fluent, fell in love with France and the 18th century. She developed influential friendships including Pierre de Nolhac, THE Versailles curator whose books and passion helped rehabilitate Marie Antoinette and the Ancien Regime in popular culture. Naturally fashionable Elsie also discovered Parisian Haute Couture a passion which culminated in the 1936 accolade ‘Best Dressed’ woman in the world… age 70.
In her Mainbocher sunburst cape, inspired by Louis XIV and Versailles, now at the Metropolitan museum.
So while Elsie ultimately failed as an actress she learnt valuable skills and in her increasingly spare time decorated her home. A home established with Elizabeth Marbury, 10 years her senior and from one of the richest, smartest families in New York society, together they entertained and kept a salon, described as glittering and frequented by Henry James, Oscar Wilde and Sarah Bernhardt, the Morgans, Vanderbilts and Astors. The clearest space to chart Elsie’s decorative journey, on display to her influential friends, is through the dining room.
This begins as a theatrical space, bric and bracced and unrestrained… complete with Elsie in costume painted on the screen.
Then wood work turns white, the copious wall plates are removed, the fireplace is mirrored, a bust of Marie antoinette appears while the layered carpets disappear and Louis XVI cane chairs replace dark English ones. Finally the harsh over heading lighting is banished and french mirror backed wall sconces installed.
The dining room’s elegant final appearance in early 1900’s, here mirrored panels frame cupboard doors, there’s a new table with chic foot stools for her diners’ added comfort doubling as extra seats for their busy Sunday afternoon salons. Elsie was developing her ‘creed for comfort’ incorporating all the small details that enhance the functionality of a room.
She doesn’t make this pioneering journey all by herself. Elizabeth Marbury aware of her frustrations both at home and at the demise of her theatrical career, hires Ogden Codman the architect who believed: the French Revolution brought about the general downfall in taste. He helped her tackle the architectural elements between 1987 and 1903 achieving the transformation which established her early aesthetic, such as the drawing room where they added panelling, a decorative niche and mirrroring to improve the long narrow space. I also like the sound of a chinoiserie hall with a soft grey velvet handrail… however no images exist for this.But what about this chinoiserie entrance she created for Anne Vanderbilt in 1921 with 6 ft pagodas (from Brighton Pavillion) and a Chinese statue in a bamboo trimmed niche surrounded by a hand painted wallpaper of flowering cherry trees and delicate bamboo.
In 1905 Elsie won the contract to decorate the first ever ladies club in New York. The bad press of such an immoral establishment (respectable women could not travel unaccompanied at this time…) was overcome by the spectacular interiors Elsie created over an intense two year period often living on site. Where the world expected the standard gentleman’s’ club environment, Elsie offered up a new creed of power interior: elegant, feminine and sophisticated. Believing : It is the personality of the mistress that the home (and club) expresses. Men are forever guests in our homes, no matter how much happiness they may find there. Everyone was seduced.The club’s Trellis Room was a sensation, Ogden Codman had used trellis in a private ball room in New Port in 1900, and Elsie had read about it in 18th century Paris, but the American public (including the press) had never seen the like. 40 ft by 20 ft with dark green trellis work, a fountain and hanging lanterns Elsie created an 18th century garden room for New York ladies. Her private dining room made an intimate success of the most banal of rooms, panelled mouldings on soft yellow walls were lined in pale grey paper then hand painted in exuberant Rococo designs of flowers, ribbons, arabesques in Pompadour colours. Complemented by striped upholstery with rose brocade on elegant Marie Antoinette style chairs. She even created grille cabinets to hide radiators, lined in rose silk with inbuilt planters on top.
The bedrooms set the standard for hotel bedrooms EVER since. This image is from the ‘show house’ she created with Ogden a few years later, naturally America’s first and another huge hit with the press. Elsie included: desks for notes (pre-texting), dressing tables by the windows, a slipper chair and stool for … stockings, bedsides with handy lights, a daybed for resting, and of course the hi-tech telephone. All with lashings of floral chintz in cheerful colours.
Elsie even designed the blue and buff uniforms for the Colony Club staff.
Her career and her brand were established, under her maxim: suitability, simplicity and proportion. Put more simply: I believe in plenty of optimism and white paint.
Elsie’s interiors inspired an American population awed by the pace of change in their modern cities, by making it chic to aspire to a cultural past, she entranced the nation and her book ‘In Good Taste’ became a bestseller and first interiors guide.
Her trophy client list grew and grew. She even designed the private rooms for Henry Clay Frick’s mansion, after writing: Please don’t forget me! I am specailly good at detail and fitting up and the comfort of women’s rooms, the intimate little tricks that no mere man, no matter how clever he may be, can ever know. Here above what is now the museum she created beautiful living quarters along this corridor with sleek panelling and softly lit coved ceiling, I love the ceiling painted in 18th century style Arabesques and the modern gallery wall.
In Conde Nast’s apartment she designed a Chinoiserie ballroom …the hand painted wallpaper shipped over, from the Duke of Portland’s attic, a provenance coup which Nast and Elsie appreciated.
like the zig zag leopard print pelmets ?Wallis Simpson , the Pierspoint Morgans, Vanderbilts and Astors were all early clients. After the war her clientele and taste embraced Hollywood and Café Society becoming more glamorous and flamboyant, her evolving style more obviously relevant and inspiring to designers working today.
Take the hall below where clean architectural lines reflect in mirrored pilasters, there’s slick black skirting and stairs vividly off set by an exotic zebra runner alongside her signature 18th century furniture and lighting. New York apartment for Hollywood actress Hope Hampton.
Then look at Kelly Wearstler’s modern entrance…
Or the bathroom below, Elsie became the talk of Paris when she received guests… in her bathroom in the 1930’s age 60 plus.
She literally reinvented the bathroom as a glamorous entertaining space, taking inspiration from the 18th century ‘Toilette’ ritual where women received admiring callers in their dressing room boudoirs… so Elsie hung out in her bath-boudoir practising yoga or mixing cocktails depending on the hour. She combined her elegant 18th C langauge with the exotic materials of Art Deco and the glamour of Hollywood creating a new interior aesthetic.As she said, possibly from a head stand position: It is my boudoir-bathroom…that I can always come home to with joy… it (is) the last word in modern luxury.
The cocktail of decorative effects that Elsie shook together in her bathroom dazzled; marble walls were offset by a mirrored cornice and fireplace etched with sea monsters and mermaids. Oyster light fittings gleamed overhead while gilt swan’s head taps hung over the marble bath. The curtains were shimmering silver lamé, the floor dense creamy pile with moroccan rugs, equipped with black lacquer and mirrored furniture and a zebra skin sofa (later white) for guests to lounge on…The New York Times gossiped: Ambassadors, statesmen, famous artists and authors, even royalty, have admired it and have enjoyed tea parties and after-dinner coffee surrounded by its beauties.
The chicest of New York decorators today Miles Redd not only has a trellis garden with stripes,
and zebra skin doors…
but also a mirrored bathroom he entertains in…
In black tie with the girls…
So Elsie lives on.
Elsie painted by Boutet de Monvel.
Because Elsie is a legend, self-created and pioneering, she combined great style with great substance. So keep looking out for her she’s still here.
Penny Sparke: Elsie de Wolfe: The Birth of Modern Interior Decoration.
Nina Campbell and Caroline Sheebohm: Elsie de Wolfe, A Decorative Life.
Charlie Scheips: Elsie de Wolfe’s Paris, Frivolity before the storm.
Adam Lewis: The Great Lady Decorators 1870-1945.
Elsie’s true love was her houses and the most beloved of these was ‘Trianon’ in Versailles which I think deserves its own post alongside ‘After All’ the extraordinary house she created in Los Angeles.
Post 1: The Making of a Legend
Post 2: After All (out May 2016)
hey and maybe Post 3: Elsie Now (because once you start looking Elsie’s influence is everywhere…)