Elsie de Wolfe was an interior decorator before there was such a thing. And if she wasn’t making headlines for covering 18th century footstools in leopard print, she was in the newspapers for her eccentric blue hair, her affinity for small dogs (see here, here, and here), and unique preferences for physical fitness.
Born in New York, NY just after the end of the Civil War, Elsie became “Lady Elsie” when she was presented to Queen Victoria and London society, (a quite unusual honor for an American girl at the time). This experience focused her vision of life on elegance, refinement, fashion, and good taste. She came into the profession of interior design somewhat serendipitously. Known as a member of New York’s Gilded Age high society with Anne Vanderbilt and Anne Morgan (see here , here and here), Elsie worked as a professional actress. But it was her on-stage attire that garnered attention from critics and audiences alike, not just her performances. Soon she changed her business from decorating the stage to decorating houses and took up residence at the Washington Irving House in New York City in the 1890s with her lifelong companion Elisabeth “Bessy” Marbury, a successful literary and theater agent, their apartment serving as a design showroom.
Her work in the profession was secured when Stanford White asked her to decorate the Colony Club in New York, the first women’s-only club in the city in 1905.
Her compiled words of wisdom from The Delineator magazine became a bestselling book, “The House in Good Taste.” The advice given to readers in de Wolfe’s compendium still remains relevant today: Do-it-yourself, eat outdoors, always have a chaise-longue for mid-day ‘winks’, color selection is very important, bring the outdoors in. De Wolfe carried on the tradition of decorative surfaces and harmonious color combinations while clearing away the thickly curtained and upholstered look of the Victorian nineteenth century. Drawing inspiration from her summers spent in France, she came to prefer the lighter, softer interiors of Versailles and the delicate lines of eighteenth-century French furniture.
Her reputation for having an eye for design as well as her ability to create a harmonious environment preceded her and she went on to become one of the most sought-after interior designers in the 1900s; charging a reasonable sum to those could afford her services. Before de Wolfe came along, women’s homes were not designed; the pieces were merely assembled by the lady of the house. Her motto was simply: “A House that is like the life that goes along with it, a house that gives us beauty as we understand it–and beauty of a nobler kind that we may grow to understand, a house that looks refined.” De Wolfe quite literally studied her clients: with suitability, simplicity, and proportion in mind. Her belief was that a living space should reflect one’s personality, not one’s income; that anyone could have a designed home, even on a dime.
Elsie was active in the fight for women’s suffrage and received the Legion d’Honneur for giving the Red Cross use of her residence in Versailles France, Villa Trianon, during World War 1. In 1926, at the age of 60, she enters a platonic marriage with diplomat Sir Charles Mendl, taking the name Lady Mendl. Her eponymously named Elsie de Wolfe Foundation continues to sponsor decorative arts programs that inspire those with an interest in designing a home that gives beauty and refinement.
Were you inspired to give your home a makeover after reading this post? Have you found any other articles about Elsie in Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers? Let us know in the comments!