Photo: Elsie de Wolfe
After reading about Elsie de Wolfe life, I amazed the similarities not only in our last name but in our design philosophies. And so much of my own design style was unknowing influenced by Elsie, such as a love for French furniture and Louis XV antiques, leopard prints, trompe l’oeil, slipcovers and painted furniture. I should not have been surprised as Elsie has influenced so many designers since 1907 when she decided to change the dark and gloomy Victorian standards of interior design, opening up a new standard of design that is still in practice today.
Photo: Elsie de Wolfe Room
Elsie de Wolfe was a pioneer ahead of her time, when she turned the design world upside down, with her new and innovated ideas about interior design. Elsie born December 20, 1865 – July 12, 1950 was also known as the chintz lady and Lady Mendl. She earned the name chintz lady, after seeing homes in England in the 1880’s decorated in the charming printed floral cotton prints; she began using them in her designs when she began decorating herself.
Twelve interesting facts about Elsie;
1. The Actress; She started out in the theater and she was such a style trend setter wearing couturier from England and France from her travels that female audiences came out to see what she was wearing as much as to see her performance, so much so that her reviews showed up in the fashion pages not the theater section of the papers.
2. Unconventional Elsie; She had an unconventional relationship of 45 years with theatrical agent Elisabeth (Bessie) Marbury who bought her a house in Versailles in 1905, the Villa Trianon. This was a house in France that Elsie would shower her talents, and dedication, “Without it,” She wrote “The pattern of my life could never have been woven in such bright hues.”
3. She brought the outdoors in; Elsie loved flowers mainly for interior use. ”Any home would be cold without them” She had a love of green and white, and favored topiary, ivies, and box, arranged on what she called tapis vert which means an unbroken expanse of lawn or green carpet. Elsie love of flowers, topiary, ivies, and box is another one of her design elements we share.
.Bringing the outdoors in was an Inspirational idea that Elsie read about in La Maison de Plaisance, published in 1738 about treillage, the artful use of wood-strip trellis. While trellis was traditionally used outdoors in gardens as a vine arbor, Elsie showed that it could be brought indoors while she was decorating the garden room of Colony Club, New York’s first club for women.
4. She is credited with making interior decorating a profession; The Colony Club was her first major commission, her friends Bessie Marbury who was on the founding board and Anne Morgan helped her to get it. At the time the only recognized home furnishing professional were antique dealers and architects, so because of this some say she was the first interior decorator.
5. Needlepoint quotes on cushions; Elsie needlepointed on decorative cushions that were her invention. “Never complain and never explain” was on one. And “A fool and his money are soon invited everywhere” “Failure only begins when you give up trying to succeed” Elsie never gave up trying.
6. She designed her own chintzes; This fern chintz is still in demand today. GP & J Baker ferns chintz fabric is available through Alexander’s interiors, Oxford London.
Fern chintz wallpaper and fabric
7. Clip on shades; She invented clip on shades the same ones that are used today on table lamps and chandeliers.
8. Blue hair; If you think the trend of dyeing you hair colors is something only the teens today came up with we can credit Elsie with that, as she died her hair blue and sometime different colors to match her jewels.
9. Elsie The author; In 1912 Elsie was still the only women decorator in the United States, and in 1913 she published her first book, The House in Good Taste with ghostwriter Ruby Ross Wood (Goodnow), who helped her and learned so much from Elsie that she went on to become an interior decorator herself.
She also wrote an autobiography, filled with her rules for physical fitness and mental health, entitled After All and Elsie de Wolfe’s Recipes for Successful Dining, dinner party rules. Some say that Elsie parties made her even more famous than her interior decorating.
10. Elsie the nurse; She loved France so much where her beloved Villa Trianon was that she served as a frontline nurse with utmost courage and dedication and was awarded both the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor.
11. Married at 61; Sir Charles Mendl a British diplomat, earned her the name Lady Mendl. He was quoted as saying “For all I know, the old girl is still a virgin.” Why get married at a late age considering her sexual predilections? In Elsie words she said, “We moved in the same circles. We spoke the same language; we took a real delight in each other’s company.”
Black and white room by Katheryn De Wolfe
12. Songs were written about Elsie: Noel Coward as well as others wrote lyrics about Elsie. During Elsie’s black and white period, Cole Porter wrote a song about her, called “Black and White Baby of Mine”.
I did not know of Elsie De Wolfe until after I became an interior designer, and though we are unrelated, I do know that her design style is what has influenced my career and many other designers unknowingly for over a century in both America and in Europe.
Elsie said, “ I am going to make everything around me beautiful. That will be my life.” And that she did.
Katheryn De Wolfe is an interior designer in Palm Beach Florida, and can be reached by calling 561-364-0074. If you would like to leave a comment you can click on the Facebook link below;
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