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Elsie de Wolfe: Pioneering Interior Designer and Social Figure

CEO Khai Intela
Elsie de Wolfe, Lady Mendl, was not just an American actress; she was a trailblazing interior designer and author. Born in New York City, de Wolfe had a keen sense of her surroundings from a...

Elsie de Wolfe, photograph from The House in Good Taste, 1913

Elsie de Wolfe, Lady Mendl, was not just an American actress; she was a trailblazing interior designer and author. Born in New York City, de Wolfe had a keen sense of her surroundings from a young age. She revolutionized interior decorating by replacing the dark and ornate Victorian style with lighter, simpler designs and uncluttered layouts.

Career

According to The New Yorker, "Interior design as a profession was invented by Elsie de Wolfe." She became the most famous name in the field until the 1930s, but the profession had already been recognized as promising by 1900. Her first official commission came in 1905 with the Colony Club in New York City. De Wolfe's distinguished clients included the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Anne Harriman Vanderbilt, Anne Morgan, and Henry Clay and Adelaide Frick. She transformed their homes, replacing heavy and dark decor with fresh colors and a reliance on 18th-century French furniture and accessories.

A room designed by Elsie de Wolfe (color photograph from The House in Good Taste, 1913)

Early Life and Influences

De Wolfe's sensitivity to style and color developed from childhood. She detested the dark and ornate decor of her parents' drawing room, which was decorated with a William Morris design of gray palm-leaves and splotches of bright red and green. This aversion to Victorian style shaped her design vocabulary, as she banished it from her work. Her first career choice was that of an actress, but she eventually left the theater to pursue her true passion: interior decorating.

Bessie Marbury and Elsie de Wolfe (from My Crystal Ball, 1923)

Relationships and Personal Life

De Wolfe's personal life was unconventional for her time. She entered into a lesbian relationship with Elisabeth Marbury in 1892, with whom she lived openly in New York and Paris. Their relationship lasted until Marbury's death in 1933. In 1926, de Wolfe married English diplomat Sir Charles Mendl, a union seen as one of convenience. Despite her marriage, de Wolfe continued her relationship with Marbury.

Elsie de Wolfe in Red Cross volunteer uniform, from a 1919 publication.

Legacy and Contributions

De Wolfe's impact on interior design cannot be overstated. She transformed homes, clubs, and businesses with her light and feminine touch. She popularized the use of mirrors, fresh colors, and French and English inspirations. Her career took a significant turn with the interior design of the Colony Club, which launched her fame as the most sought-after decorator of the time. Her reputation continued to grow, and by 1913, she had her own studio on 5th Avenue.

Interior of Elsie De Wolfe's music pavilion looking out onto the pool, The Villa Trianon, William Bruce Ellis Ranken

Personal Life Her personal life was just as fascinating as her professional one. She was known for her unconventional habits, such as dying her hair blue, wearing what suited her instead of following fashion trends, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. She advocated for a semi-vegetarian diet and embraced exercise, including yoga and walking on her hands.

Elsie de Wolfe, photograph from The House in Good Taste, 1913

In conclusion, Elsie de Wolfe was a pioneer who revolutionized interior design. She brought fresh air and sunshine into homes, transforming them into light and inviting spaces. Her influence is still felt today, and her legacy as a prominent figure in both design and society is enduring.

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