Elsie de Wolfe, also known as Lady Mendl, was born in 1865 in New York, lived a glamorous life as a well-known member of the European cafe society and earned the title of “grand dame of modern decorating”. She is believed to be the creator of the interior design profession and called the ‘first modern professional decorator’ by many.
She didn’t have a particularly happy childhood; she believed she was “an ugly child”, and strongly disliked the Victorian surroundings she grew up in. She is known for especially hating William Morris furniture and wallpaper – there’s a famous account by de Wolfe that after her parents redid their drawing room with William Morris’s wallpaper, she threw herself on the floor and cried, screaming “It’s so ugly!” Maybe that was the moment she decided to make the beauty her mission and dedicate her life to creating beautiful surroundings.
She started her professional career as an actress under the wings of theatrical agent Elisabeth Marbury and started to get noticed for her carefully selected outfits rather then her acting. The female audience loved her outfits and started copying her style, which made de Wolfe a fashion icon of the time. She was even named the ‘best-dressed woman in the world’ in 1935.
She smoothly transitioned to being a decorator after redoing her shared house with Elisabeth Marbury, where she let her rebellious interior design ideas free to create a light, airy and feminine surrounding. She immediately got rid off the dark woodwork and patterned wallpapers and instead used ivory and pale grey walls as her backdrop. She created a beautiful sitting room using light muslin curtains, mirrors, mix of floral and leopard-print upholstery and pale painted French furniture. Note that leopard-print upholstery was not a ‘thing’ by then. It was sensational amongst their society friends and from that point onwards she was no longer an actress but a decorator.
She strengthened her ‘professional decorator’ title with many successful design projects, including but not limited to The Colony Club (first exclusive woman’s club in America, where she used painted trellis as an indoor wall-covering), Villa Trianon in Versailles (de Wolfe and Marbury’s home that quickly became the hot spot for the period’s society) and Countess Dorothy di Frasso’s Beverly Hill’s home. In her own words, she was the “rebel in an ugly world” and she really did rebelled against late Victorian decorating by using simplicity and sustainability in her designs. Her style would be best described as light, airy, comfortable and whimsical. She was a big fan of mirrors, chinoiserie and light colour combinations, all of which introduced a feminine touch to the interiors she designed. In her famous words, “(she) believe(d) in plenty of optimism and white paint, comfortable chairs with lights beside them, open fires on the hearth and flowers wherever they ‘belong,’ mirrors and sunshine in all rooms.” Hallelujah to that!
She published a decorating guide called ‘The House in Good Taste’ in 1913, which became a huge success and is still considered a crucial book for all design lovers. I haven’t read it yet but my copy is in the post and I can’t wait to receive it! De Wolfe is ‘the’ decorator who showed the world the importance of pale colour schemes, painted woodwork and airy interiors, and that floral chintzes and leopard print can actually be stylish if used in the right way. She is also the first designer to use the painted trellis as an indoor wall-covering, which gained a huge popularity and is used by many interior designers over the years. She also introduced animal-print carpeting and mirrored walls, revolutionising the interior design world.
Elsie de Wolfe was an incredible women and a true inspiration. She returned to France soon after WWI started and turned her villa into a hospital helping soldiers. She had many talents under her belt – she was the fashion icon, the actress, the Red Cross nurse, the original interior designer, the hostess with the mostess and most importantly a free, independent soul dedicated herself to create beauty. She started her interior design career when she was 40 and revolutionised the home decor, showing us it’s never too late!
Fun Fact: Apparently she was presented to Queen Victoria and called her “a little fat queen in a black dress and a load of jewels”.