A look at decorating pioneer de Wolfe

December 20, 1992|By Mary Daniels | Mary Daniels,Chicago Tribune

Shortly after the turn of the century, a plain-looking woman whose only true love was beauty banished the heavy dark curtains, dark corners and sullen colors of her Victorian era in favor of "plenty of optimism and white paint," propelling interior design into the 20th century.

Following her decorative gospel of simplicity, suitability and proportion, Elsie de Wolfe rejected the cluttery Victorian design standard and opened up horizons of decorating.

"I think that it was so fascinating that she did it in one fell swoop," says Nina Campbell, co-author with Caroline Seebohm of "Elsie de Wolfe, A Decorative Life" (Clarkson Potter, $35).

The book recalls the personal and professional histories of the founding mother of the decorating profession. Its pages are filled with photographs and color renderings of de Wolfe's work and of contemporary rooms that echo her ideas.

"Her interiors don't look that exciting to us now," Ms. Campbell says. "But at the time . . . they must have seemed spectacular."

Chintz and chinoiserie, glittery mirrors, painted furniture, decoupage, leopard prints, black-and-white color schemes, introducing light and comfort, arranging seats for conversation's sake -- these were ideas de Wolfe introduced into American rooms.

De Wolfe's personal history is as extraordinary as her professional prowess.

"Born in 1865 [in New York], she was from the beginning a small, opinionated grown-up," says Ms. Campbell, an interior decorator London whose clients include Sarah, the Duchess of York.

De Wolfe's first, precocious revolt against Victorian excess is the basis of one of Ms. Campbell's favorite anecdotes.

"One of her earliest memories was of returning home from school to find that the de Wolfe drawing room had been redecorated in such dire [but typically Victorian] taste that she promptly threw herself on the floor in a fit of rage," Ms. Campbell writes.

"When her father managed to pick her up and ask what was the matter, she shrieked, 'It's ugly! It's so ugly!' "

After an uncompromising Victorian upbringing by her physician father and her thrifty mother, she was sent at age 14 to Edinburgh, Scotland, to stay with her mother's cousin. The cousin was the wife of Dr. Archibald Charteris, one of Queen Victoria's chaplains. Thanks to the family's royal connection, in spring 1885 the young American was presented at court to the queen.

After that meeting, Elsie made a vow: "If I am ugly, and I am," she remembers passionately promising herself, "I am going to make everything around me beautiful. That will be my life. I could steal for beauty. I could kill for it."

De Wolfe began her working life as an actress -- a very bad one, Ms. Campbell says. Despite her lack of talent, women flocked to her shows to see her wear the newest, most exciting clothes from the great couture houses of Paris, she adds.

"Being in amateur theatricals was her way into New York society," Ms. Campbell says. "She had no money to begin with."

In the summer of 1887, while she was still an amateur ingenue, de Wolfe met Elisabeth Marbury, a New York socialite and impresario.

"Elsie and Bessie [as Marbury was known] became increasingly prominent on the New York social scene. They were dubbed 'the bachelors' and had an ever-enlarging circle of acquaintances," Ms. Campbell writes.

De Wolfe's first professional break was the decoration of New York's Colony Club, an organization for wealthy women. Marbury was on the founding board of the club and helped de Wolfe get the commission.

Patterning her choices on her memories of English country houses, de Wolfe used chintzes, light curtains, tiled floors, wicker furniture, lacquered chairs, painted wall panels and -- most startling to the ladies who lunched -- treillage, or dark green trellises that made the club reminiscent of an 18th-century conservatory. It was de Wolfe's first public success.

Decorating became de Wolfe's revenge against feeling that she had been born ugly, in tandem with her great aesthetic sensibility. Says Ms. Campbell: "I think beauty was the only thing she truly loved. Elsie herself said it best: 'I can't paint, I can't write, I can't sing. But I can decorate and run a house and light it and heat it and have it like a living thing and so right that it will be the envy of the world, the standard of perfect hospitality.' "

Tongues wagged about her professional abilities as much as her unconventional lifestyle.

Later, when the relationship with Marbury soured, de Wolfe married Charles Mendl, a 55-year-old British Embassy functionary, in 1926.

As Lady Mendl, she found her social horizons expanded. Her decorating commissions brought wealth and celebrity. She was a celebrated hostess on two continents.

She practiced yoga before anyone else in the West, which may have contributed to her long life -- she died at 86. "She stood on her head till she died," says Ms. Campbell. "She was so outrageous, but you feel quite a lot of it was done as a pose."

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