Tuesday, 26 October 2010

The Well-Appointed Interior: The Legendary Elsie de Wolfe

Elsie de Wolfe, Lady Mendl
Image courtesy of: http://www.museumplanet.com

"I believe in plenty of optimism and white paint."

No one quite knows the precise year of Elsie de Wolfe's birth (it is generally agreed to be around 1865) but her birthplace was New York City. What is certain is that she is credited with being the first American interior decorator - there had never been 'interior designers' per se, at least not before Elsie came along. What Elsie did for the home interior was rid it of the overstuffed Victorianism with which it had been bogged down for decades; she brought freshness, airiness and lightness to bear. She had a great fondness for the perfect French furniture and interiors of the 18th century, and an abiding love for Versailles in particular. But Elsie did not come into her metier, interior decoration, early; in fact, she began her trade when she was in her 40's.

Elsie painted by Dietz Edzard, 1930's

Before then, her main interest was the theatre, and she took to the stage to become an actress. As it would be for another great lady of her era, Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel, the stage was not to be Elsie's great success; fame would not find her there. It was then that she met her first companion, the formidable Elisabeth (Bessie) Marbury, the talent impresario. She, along with another woman, Anne Morgan and Bessie, formed a trio and all three set up house together. 

Elsie, costumed as 'Mata Hari' - 1930

In 1905, architect Stanford White commissioned de Wolfe to design interiors for the exclusive Colony Club, a private club for well-to-do women. For the Colony Club, she painted rooms white, covered furniture in rustic English floral chintz, and lined the walls and ceilings with trellises. Her aim was to re-create an English cottage garden indoors - in a clean, light, and airy interior - in concept, an innovative idea. Although her design plans for the Colony Club caused considerable controversy at first, in time, Elsie received several private commissions which catapulted her to become one of the most in-demand decorators of her generation. In 1913, Elsie published her own book on interior decoration, The House In Good Taste, in which she extolled the principles of harmony, proportion and simplicity.

The Trellis Room, The Colony Club
Image courtesy of: http://www.gutenberg.org

The Dining Room, The Colony Club
Image courtesy of: http://www.gutenberg.org  

A room designed in 1909 by Elsie de Wolfe which illustrates the 'cleanness' of her interiors
A trellised room - treillage being one of Elsie's signature design elements
Image courtesy of: http://thepeakofchic.blogspot.com/  

The Trellis Room, commissioned by Mrs. Ormond G. Smith
Image courtesy of: http://www.gutenberg.org/

Elsie, Lady Mendl - in later life

Eventually, Elsie bought a house in Versailles, known as Villa Trianon, on which she doted and which became her showcase. It was at Villa Trianon that she honed her reputation (and skill) as a notable hostess of her time. To Bessie Marbury's shock and dismay, in 1926 Elsie married Sir Charles Mendl and henceforth became known as Lady Mendl.

Interior of the Villa Trianon, Versailles, bought for $16,000 in 1906
Image & the quote below are courtesy of: http://www.georgesnyder.org/

Villa Trianon Sun Room ~ ca. 1945
Image courtesy of: http://eloisemoorehead.com/

Interior of the Villa Trianon
Image courtesy of: http://georgesnyder.org

About the Villa Trianon, Elsie said, "The house, unlived in as it had been for decades, spoke to us with regret and resignation of the passing of an old grandeur. For it had belonged to the Duc de Nemours, the son of Louis Philippe. And the outbuildings had been part of the hameau of Marie Antoinette."
[Source & quote: After All, by Elsie de Wolfe (1935), New York: Harper & Brothers]

Another of Elsie's 'signatures' - the mirrored wall,
Villa Trianon

  The garden at Villa Trianon
The two images above are both courtesy of: http://www.gutenberg.org

      The garden at Villa Trianon

Pavillon de Musique, Villa Trianon
The two images above are both courtesy of: http://www.ourstory.info

Elsie de Wolfe's Villa Trianon interior

As war broke out and the Nazi menace became eminent, Elsie and her husband, Sir Charles Mendl, decided to abandon Versailles and their beloved Villa Trianon and head to America. It  was in Beverly Hills, where they eventually landed, that Elsie embarked on the decoration of their new home, After All. It was here that Lady Mendl, as Elsie became known, commissioned a young and, at that time, unknown talent by the name of Tony Duquette, to assist her in decorating her new home - to her specifications.

Entrance hall - After All

The card room - After All

  Looking towards the bar from the drawing room - After All

 The tented bar - After All

 Two views (above & below) of the mirrored  end wall & fireplace of the drawing room  - After All

 Elsie's bedroom - After All

Elsie at home, 1944 - After All
The above nine images of After All are courtesy of: http://tonyduquette.com/

Lady Mendl

In later life, Lady Mendl's influence on fashion was still very much apparent,if somewhat eccentric - refusing to accept the condition of her own greying hair, she introduced women to the fashion of dying their grey hair a distinctly bluish tint.

Ever anxious about the state and condition of her beloved Villa Trianon, Elsie, along with her husband Charles and her young protégé, Tony Duquette, returned to France at the end of World War II. It was here, at Villa Trianon - the house she loved best of all her houses and at Versailles, her favourite place in the world  - that Elsie, Lady Mendl died on July the 12th, 1950. (Source: pagerankstudio.com, 2010)


Lady Mendl in an embroidered cape by Elsa Schiaparelli

"Simplicity, suitability and proportion."

Recommended readings:

 Elsie de Wolfe: Life in High Style (1982), by Jane S. Smith: Atheneum

Ladies and Not-So-Gentle Women (2000), by Alfred Allen Lewis: Viking

Elsie de Wolfe: The Birth of Modern Interior Decoration (2005), by Penny Sparke, Elsie de Wolfe, and Mitchell Ownens: Acanthus Press

The House In Good Taste (republished, 2010), Elsie de Wolfe: Read Books

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