Thursday, 17 March 2011

No One Does It Better: Tony Duquette & The Exquisite Art of Excess

Tony Duquette
Image courtesy of:

"It's a constant evolution. There is no master plan, no order. When I decorate a room, I work like an artist painting a canvas ~ I use pillows, Chinese lacquers, draperies and hangings to accent the basic arrangement. In the garden, I work in a similar way, 'painting' with leaves. I use yellow-greens to lighten areas and deep greens and bronzes for shadow and drama. I highlight with corals, bright yellows and flowering tree branches."  

Duquette photographed among his floral sculpture creations
Image courtest of:

Good taste is subjective. One person's idea or notion of 'good taste' may vastly differ from another's. And the demonstration of what is considered to be 'good taste' is nowhere more apparent than in one's sartorial choices as it is in one's surroundings. That said, with all the countless sources of decorating books, websites, and magazines which are presently available at one's disposal - and all of which pontificating on the merits and ideals of what a home in 'good taste' ought to appear to be with generous layouts of step-by-step instructions - one can attain the basic principles of acceptable good taste; that is, one can learn to replicate - or imitate - the mainstream notion of 'good taste' and, in turn, achieve a 'veneer' of a tastefully-done interior.

Originality, on the other hand, is quite a whole other matter. Originality cannot be duplicated for the simple fact that it requires three essential components: courage, self-confidence and intelligence. Courage is needed to venture 'out on a limb,' to use an old expression, and to withstand the (very realistic) possibility of ridicule for one's unconventional ideas (the majority of people do not eagerly take to new ideas and denigrate that which they find incomprehensible or too novel); courage and self-confidence are also required to believe in one's own principles when no one else is willing to believe or is ready to share in one's vision. Sustained by curiosity, the third component, intelligence, is necessary in order to explore untried options and to think independently - free of the status quo mainstream and away from the 'herd mentality' - while at the same time questioning established rules on what is and what is not acceptable - and to ask the pivotal why; or rather, the more pertinent why not?

Tony Duquette - inerior decorator, jewellery designer, sculptor and one-time MGM set designer and costumier - was, unquestionably, a complete original. And whether or not you agree with Duquette's notions of 'good taste,' one thing is for certain: he had the courage, coupled with the intelligence, to fearlessly pursue his own visions along with the self-assured confidence to create unique, distinctive interiors - all of which he did with audacious panache and deft wit.

Duquette photographed with one of his jewellery pieces ~ a Duchess Necklace
Image courtesy of:

Anthony Michael Duquette, the oldest of four children, was born in Los Angeles on June 11th, 1914. A precocious child, when he was twelve, Tony entertained his younger siblings with a puppet show of Scheherazade, for which he made all the costumes himself and the toy houses, which he also built, were cleverly lit with birthday candles.  

Tony Duquette spent his early years between Three Rivers, Michigan - where he and his family spent most of the year - and Los Angeles, California - where the Duquettes wintered. Tony was awarded two scholarships as a student: the prestigious Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, and the other to the Yale School of Drama. After graduating from the Chouinard Art Institute, Duquette began working in promotional advertising where he created captivating environments for the latest fashions. His first job was at the Los Angeles department store, Bullock's. Simultaneously, he also began to freelance for a few well-established and reputable designers, namely: the chic actor-turned-legendary-decorator, William 'Billy' Haines (1900-1973); interior designer James B. Pendleton (1904-1995); and one of Hollywood's premiere costumiers, (Gilbert) Adrian (1903-1959).

Duquette moved permanently to Los Angeles in 1935 where he was later joined by his parents and three siblings in the early 1940s. It was at this period in his career - the early 1940s - that Duquette was discovered by Elsie de Wolfe (Lady Mendl), the acclaimed  international decorator and arbiter of taste, living out the war years with her husband, Sir Charles Mendl, in Los Angeles. After admiring a jeweled plaster-and-glass centrepiece he had made for a dinner party, Lady Mendl commanded Duquette to make her a meuble (the French term for furniture). What Duquette created for Elsie was a black-lacquered secretaire en portefeuille with Moors set against a mirrored background festooned with Venetian glass flowers. Pleased with the result, it was enough to convince Lady Mendl of Duquette's talent and she began to recommend him to influential editors, friends and clients (a collaboration developed between the two decorators - mentor and protégé -which lasted till Lady Mendl's death in 1950). (After the liberation of Paris in August of 1944, Duquette was asked to accompany the Mendls back to France where they had a house in Versailles known as Villa Trianon - just outside of Paris - and where Lady Mendl continued to introduce her protégé to many of  her Continental friends.) It was through the patronage and endorsement of the Mendls that Duquette established himself as a leading set and costume designer in the film industry, most notably for Metro Goldwyn Mayer's studio productions (his roster of films included: Yolanda And The Thief (1945), Lovely To Look At, Kismet, The Ziegfeld Follies of 1944, and Jest Of Cards).

Elsie, Lady Mendl pictured in front of the secretaire en portefeuille (the meuble) she commissioned from Duquette
The above two images are courtesy of:

It was at MGM that Duquette worked under the producer and lyricist, Arthur Freed (born Grossman) (1894-1973) and director, Vincent Minnelli (1903-1986). (In the 1940s, Duquette was at the height of his career designing interiors for Mary Pickford and Buddy Rogers as well as nightclubs, along with jewellery and custom, special-order furnishings for Lady Mendl. Along with other young men of his generation, Duquette was also conscripted into the United States Army as a private where he served for four years and from which he was honourably discharged.) 
(Sources: Iovine, J.V.,, September 14, 1999;, undated;, 2011;, 2010)

Elsie de Wolfe (Lady Mendl), who discovered Duquette in 1941, advised him:
 “You work for who you see, you are in a luxury business, no point living like a starving artist in a garret. Nobody is going to hire you if you live worse than they do!
(Quote & image courtesy of:

Upon his return to America from Europe in 1947, Tony continued to work in the film industry, designing sets and costumes, in addition to the commissions he undertook for private clients. Then in 1949, as with many returning officers and eager couples after the traumatic events of the Second World War, Duquette met and married an artist by the name of Elizabeth Johnstone (the two would collaborate together on many design commissions after their marriage). The actual wedding ceremony was held at the legendary Pickfair - the residence of 'America's Sweetheart' Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks; Pickfair also has the distinction of being the first mansion to ever be built in Beverly Hills - with Mary Pickford standing in as matron of honour for Elizabeth while Buddy Rogers stood in as Tony's best man. At the reception for the newlyweds that followed, the guest list was stellar: Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, Fred Astaire, Vincent Minnelli, Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper, Vernon Dyke and Marion Davies to name but a few. The Duquettes became a fixture on the Hollywood social scene.

Elizabeth 'Beegle' Duquette

1949 was a notable year for another reason. It was the year that Tony Duquette presented his first exhibition at the Mitch Liesen Gallery in Los Angeles. Then, not long afterwards, Duquette was asked to exhibit at the Pavillon de Marsan at the Louvre Museum in Paris, an unprecedented prestige. Until recently, Duquette was the only American artist to ever be honoured with a one-man show at the Louvre. Having spent a year in France where he fulfilled commissions for such prominent clients as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor - Duquette also crafted unique jewellery pieces for the Duchess of Windsor, a woman celebrated for her fabulous jewellery collection - and the immensely wealthy industrialist, Paul-Louis Weiller, Duquette returned to America and to another one-man show, this time at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 'One-man shows' at worldly museums and galleries would become a staple of Duquette's long career: the M.H. de Young Museum and Palace of the Legion of Honour in San Francisco; The California Museum of Science and Industry and the Municipal Art Gallery in Los Angeles; The El Paso Museum of Art; The Santa Barabara Art Museum; The Museum of the City of New York. Ohter shows were held in other cities, including Dallas, Chicago, Phoenix and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Sources:, undated;, undated)

Tented ceiling, wire screens, metal-mesh fireplace and sea-shell framed mirror 

Drawing Room

A table setting for a dinner party at Dawnridge
(Insects, birds, corals, squirrels, ships and rare porcelains all laid out on Duquette's signature malachite table linens)
The above three images are courtesy of Kevin Sharkey:

Affectionately nicknamed 'Beegle' by her husband  and those close to her - an amalgamation of the words 'bee' and 'eagle,' Duquette concocted the nickname for his wife in reference to the industriousness of  the bee and the soaring flight of the eagle - in 1956, Elizabeth and Tony opened a salon, The Tony Duquette Studios, in an abandoned silent film studio that once belonged to screen idol Norma Talmadge. It was here, at the Duquette Studios, that Tony and Elizabeth lavishly entertained some of the most celebrated names of Hollywood's golden era.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the Duquettes travelled extensively, working on commissions across the globe and for an eclectic mix of international clienteles. Some of these commissions included interiors for Doris Duke, Norton Simon and J. Paul Getty, a castle in Ireland for Elizabeth Arden and a penthouse suite in the Hawaiian islands, also for Arden. Duquette also worked on public commissions as well: The Hilton Hawaiian Village, Sheraton Universal Hotel, and the sculptures and tapestries for the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Chicago. In 1969, Hutton Wilkinson - the man who would befriend and collaborate with Duquette on numerous projects for thirty years - met and began working as a volunteer/apprentice with Duquette and did so in that capacity for two years; then as a paid assistant for the next three years before establishing his own design firm. (The two men would work together in partnership on commissions for Mr. and Mrs. Norton Simon, Herb Alpert, Doris Duke as well as the Venetian and Parisian residences of Mr. and Mrs. John N. Rosekrans.)

In addition to his design work in the film industry, Duquette branched out to include other artistic disciplines such as the theatre (the original Broadway production of Camelot for which Duquette won the Tony Award for Best Costume in 1961), the ballet (Beauty and the Beast and Dance Concertants for the San Francisco Ballet), and the opera (Der Rosenkavelier, Mozart's The Magic Flute, and Salomé - for all of which Duquette designed the costumes and sets).
(Sources:, undated; Iovine, J.V.,, September 14, 1999;, undated)

This photograph was taken at Duquette's old studio on Franklin Avenue, Los Angeles

The Duquette studio on Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles ~ 1960s

Hutton Wilkinson tells Vanity Fair of an anecdote about the stuffed birds above:
Tony wanted to buy a stuffed Argus bird from the Museum of Natural History in Los Angeles. They said he could buy the bird, but he would also have to buy all of their stuffed birds … so he did. He then set about dressing the birds with headdresses and collars and even hung valuable baroque pearls from their beaks. He used these in glass cases for a large dinner-dance given by George Frelinghuysen. To his horror, Tony watched as guests carted away the decorations ‘like party favors.’” Frelinghuysen was very generous and paid for all the dressed birds that had disappeared.

The actor James Coburn's house, decorated by Duquette
(View looking down from the stair hallway)

Tony & Elizabeth Duquette tiny garden in San Francisco:
As Wilkinson recalls, “Tony made a decorative screen across the back of the garden from discarded Victorian architectural elements that he picked off of demolition sites in the neighborhood. He paved the garden with old cobblestones torn up from San Francisco streets and planted it with succulents and bromeliads in variegated shades of green. It was a magical shady space to sit or dine in, or just to look out over from the upper floors of the birdcage Victorian house that he called 'Cow Hollow.'

The screened-in porch at Duquette's ranch, Frogmore Hall, in Malibu
It was furnished with antique Adirondack twig furniture upholstered in tiger corduroy and Rudi Gernriech knitted green-and-black checked fabrics. Old paneling covered the walls, which retained the mirrors, antique Austrian peasant furniture, and carved horses from India that all lived side by side with Tony’s own sculptures, such as the lighted ghost snail, which is by now being reproduced by Baker Furniture. My favorite thing was how Tony added the carved wings to the horses’ heads. This is what he did. He individualized everything in the most creative and amusing ways. He had no fear, and cut, glued, and painted costly antiques as well as found objects with equal enthusiasm to adapt them for his individual vision and aesthetic. ‘Beauty, not luxury, is what I value,’ he would often say.”

 Hutton Wilkinson has “redecorated the house using only things made by Tony and Beegle [Tony's wife, Elizabeth] and have put the interiors together with sensitivity as a tribute to my dear friends. In this photo are the sunburst screens, which I created using hubcaps and metal sunbursts by Poilerat. The walls have been hung in ‘Golden Sunburst,’ an original Tony Duquette that I put together for Jim Thompson Thai Silk.”
(The seven images above are from Hutton Wilkinson’s new book, More Is More (2009): Abrams)
Hutton Wilkinson's quotes along with the aforementioned images are all courtesy of:

The Anthony and Elizabeth Duquette Foundation for the Living Arts, a non-profit foundation whose purpose of existence is to present museum-quality exhibitions of artistic, scientific and educational value to the public, was formed in 1979. In conjunction with other museums and foundations, the Duquette Foundation has sponsored exhibitions and lectures in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Texas and New York.

Following a fire in 1989 which completely destroyed the Duquette Pavilion of Saint Francis (created on the site of an abandoned synagogue as a space in which to celebrate Saint Francis, the patron saint of San Francisco) and all that was contained in the Pavilion, including collections and works of art gathered over the years, the Duquettes decided to put their efforts into creating a modern-day Shangri-la: the result was Sortilegium. Latin for enchantment, Sortilegium was a 150-acre ranch nestled into the Malibu Mountains of California. A work in progress, at Sortilegium, Tony concentrated his efforts into creating a living work of art. Tragedy struck for the second time and in the same manner in which the Duquette Pavilion was destroyed: Sortilegium was consumed in the 1993 Green Meadows Fire of Malibu. 
(Source:, undated)

The Tea House
(Sortilegium Ranch)
Image courtesy of:

In 1995 and after a marriage that lasted forty-six years, Elizabeth 'Beegle' Duquette passed away from Parkinson's disease in Los Angeles. Tony outlived his wife by four more years, finally succumbing to complications from a heart attack at U.C.L.A. Medical Center, also in Los Angeles. He died at 3:40 in the afternoon on September 9th, 1999, aged eighty-five. According to his wishes, his design firm endures under the direction of his business associate and collaborator of thirty years, Hutton Wilkinson, who is also the President and Artistic Director of the Tony Duquette Studios, Inc. 

Dawnridge, Tony and Elizabeth's extraordinary house in Beverly Hills, continues to be the headquarters of Tony Duquette's design firm. (Source:, undated)

The Hamster House ~ ca. 1980s
(Sortilegium Ranch)
Image courtesy of:

Baroque in their exotic excesses, Duquette's lavish interiors are still a source of inspiration for new interior decorators - he somehow managed to seamlessly combine whimsical, luxurious fantasy with easy comfort and originality to create unforgettable interior and exterior settings. His signature elements, from crystal obelisks, coral (real or fake), malachite-print textiles, metal insects, sea-shells, chinoiserie, pagodas, antlers and stuffed birds - these have all become synonymous with Duquette's name.

With the pursuit of beauty as his main objective, Duquette boldly mixed the cheap with the costly, the authentic with the imitation, in what we today refer to as 'high-low,' a concept championed by Duquette as was his love of exoticism and the synthesis of miscellaneous cultures.

Tony Duquette was a true American original.

Bullock's Department Store
In 1935, the Los Angeles department store, Bullock's, requested Duquette - an art student at that time - to redesign and update their lobby with a new, seasonal look. Upon seeing the finished lobby, the decorator Elsie de Wolfe said:
"Who is this kid? I've got to meet him," and launched his interior decorating career.

At one point in his career, Duquettte turned his creative energies to Hollywood films: "He designed tons of sets and costumes for MGM musicals that he didn't even get credit for," his long-time friend and business associate, Hutton Wilkinson, has said, "but the films that he designed from beginning to end like Kismet, Can Can, and Lovely To Look At put him in the history books."  

The Drawing Room at Dawnridge ~ Beverly Hills
From the time he married Elizabeth in 1949 until the year of his death in 1999, Tony Duquette lived - on and off - at Dawnridge, his legendary Beverly Hills Canyon house. Today Dawnridge and its gardens are headquarters to the Tony Duquette studios. The Duquette tradition continues today under the creative direction of Hutton Wilkinson who is now head of the Duquette studios.

Sortilegium Ranch
Nestled in the Malibu mountains, this 150-acre ranch whose name means enchantment in Latin, became the Duquette vacation home that both Tony and his wife, Elizabeth, spent years creating and where they could relax. Sortilegium was comprised of twenty-two structures, each of which differed in style one from the other: "Asian, Indian, modern, and plenty of other styles only Tony could dream up. It was a very magical place," Wilkinson has said. Sortilegium was destroyed by a fire in 1993.

West Hollywood Tony Duquette Studios
With his reputation on the rise, Duquette needed a residence to equal and showcase his reputation. In 1952, he moved into the grand West Hollywood Tony Duquette Studios, which quickly became a favourite of Hollywood personalities. Legendary figures such as the intensely private Greta Garbo, Aldous Huxley and Mary Pickford, were all drawn to the Studios' lavish setting and affable atmosphere.

Duquette's original approach to mixing disparate styles and periods soon got him noticed. His unique brand of luxury - classified as "organic Baroque" - earned him private commissions around the world. This Bel Air residence, for example, is distinctly modern and demonstrates Duquette's adaptability to the needs of his diverse clients.  
(The above six images, sources & quotes are all courtesy of:

Dawnridge Estate
The Drawing Room ~ ca. 1980

The Drawing Room

A close-up of the lambrequin (a type of window treatment) 
(Drawing Room)

The malachite-print (a Duquette style signature) & mirrored-ceiling Dining Room
The above five images are courtesy of:

(Image above is courtesy of:

The above seven images show various views of the Sun Room at Dawnridge

The above twelve photographs are by Andreas Branch for Patrick McMullan
(Unless otherwise indicated)

The above photo of the pond at Dawnridge is by Kyle, author of Knight Moves
The above thirteen images are all courtesy of: 
(Unless otherwise indicated)

The 'lake' is an addition created by Hutton Wilkinson at Dawnridge
Image courtesy of:

The gazebo in the garden ~ arrangement by Hutton Wilkinson
(January/February 2011 issue of January/February 2011 issue of Veranda)

The terrace ~ arrangement by Hutton Wilkinson
(January/February 2011 issue of January/February 2011 issue of Veranda)
The above two images are courtesy of:

Video courtesy of:  ~

''Decorating is not a surface performance. It's a spiritual impulse, inborn and primordial.''

Suggested readings:

Tony Duquette (2007), by Wendy Goodman, Hutton Wilkinson & Dominick Dunne: Harry N. Abrams Inc.

More Is More: Tony Duquette (2009), by Hutton Wilkinson: Abrams

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