Known and revered as America’s first decorator, Elsie de Wolfe’s impact on interior design has been enormous. Even after her death, her legacy continues, as the casual feminine and airy style she introduced remains relevant today. Join me in discovering her story, her legacy, and some of her most important designs.
Also known as Lady Mendl after her marriage in 1926, Elsie was an American actress who became a very prominent interior designer and author. Born in New York City, de Wolfe was acutely sensitive to her surroundings from her earliest years and became one of the first female interior decorators, replacing dark and ornate Victorian decor with lighter, simpler styles and uncluttered room layouts. Her marriage to English diplomat Sir Charles Mendl was seen as a marriage of convenience, although she was proud to be called Lady Mendl. Her lifelong companion was Elisabeth Marbury, with whom she lived in New York and Paris. De Wolfe was a prominent social figure, and she entertained in the most distinguished circles.
Elsie De Wolfe’s Career
According to The New Yorker, “Interior design as a profession was invented by Elsie de Wolfe”. She was certainly the most famous name in the field until the 1930s, but the profession of interior decorator/designer was recognized as a promising one as early as 1900, five years before she received her first official commission, the Colony Club in New York.After having had some success in amateur theatrical circles in New York, she became a professional actress and performed various light comic and historical roles throughout the 1890s. Her appearances, however, were praised more for the clothes she wore than for what she did in them, as de Wolfe enjoyed the unusual arrangement with her producer of being allowed to choose her own wardrobes—usually couture ensembles she ordered in Paris from Paquin, Doucet, or Worth.
As early as 1887 de Wolfe had settled into what was then called a “Boston marriage“ with Elisabeth “Bessie” Marbury, a formidable figure in New York society who also happened to be a wildly successful literary agent and business representative for, among others, Wilde, Shaw, Bernhardt, Sardou, Rostand, and Feydeau; she even brought the play Charley’s Aunt to the U.S. After having restyled with some panache the house the two women shared on Irving Place—sweeping out her companion’s Victorian clutter, opening spaces and introducing soft, warm colors and a bit of 18th-century French elegance—de Wolfe decided in 1905 to become a professional decorator, issuing smart business cards embellished with her trademark wolf-with-nosegay crest. That same year a group of powerful New York women, named Astor, Harriman, Morgan, Whitney, and Marbury, organized the city’s first club exclusively for women, the Colony Club. Its handsome headquarters at Madison and 31st Street were designed by Stanford White, who, along with Marbury and other friends on the board, got de Wolfe the commission to do the decoration.
Preferring a brighter scheme of decorating than was fashionable in Victorian times, she helped convert interiors featuring dark, heavy draperies and overly ornate furnishings into light, soft, more feminine rooms. She made a feature of mirrors, which both illuminated and expanded living spaces, brought back into fashion furniture painted in white or pale colors, and indulged her taste for chinoiserie, chintz, green and white stripes, wicker, trompe-l’œil effects in wallpaper, and trelliswork motifs, suggesting the allure of the garden. As de Wolfe claimed: “I opened the doors and windows of America, and let the air and sunshine in.” Her inspiration came from 18th-century French and English art, literature, theater, and fashion. De Wolfe’s taste was also practical, eliminating in her schemes the clutter that occupied Victorian homes, enabling people to entertain more guests comfortably. She also popularized the chaises longue, faux-finish treatments, and animal print upholstery.
In 1905, Stanford White, the architect for the Colony Club and a longtime friend, helped de Wolfe secure the commission for its interior design. The building, located at 120 Madison Avenue (near 30th Street), would become the premier women’s social club on its opening two years later, much of its appeal owing to the interiors de Wolfe arranged. Instead of the heavy, masculine overtones then pervasive in fashionable interiors, de Wolfe used light fabric for window coverings, painted walls pale colors, tiled the floors, and added wicker chairs and settees. The effect centered on the illusion of an outdoor garden pavilion. (The building is now occupied by the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.) The success of the Colony Club proved a turning point in her own life and career, launching her fame as the most sought-after interior decorator of the day.
Over the course of the next six years, de Wolfe designed interiors for many prestigious private homes, clubs, and businesses on both the East and West coasts. By 1913, her reputation had grown so that her studio took up an entire floor of offices on 5th Avenue. That year she received her greatest commission – from coal magnate Henry Clay Frick, one of the richest men in America at the time.
Elsie de Wolfe’s Most Famous Designs
1.The Colony Club
Wolfe’s partner Elisabeth Marbury was busy becoming a founding member of The Colony Club: the first social club in New York City established by women, for women. The club was described by The New York Times as representing “a community of interests banded together for mutual advantage, social, artistic, mental, and physical.” Men were permitted as guests—and were strictly relegated to the use of a single room, known as “the strangers’ room.” The founding members tapped Stanford White—a leading architect of the Gilded Age and personal friend of de Wolfe and Marbury—to design their clubhouse on Madison Avenue.
“White built the clubhouse in the Colonial Revival style, which gained popularity after America’s centennial in 1876,” says Donald Albrecht, Curator for Architecture and Design at The Museum of the City of New York. “The style is all about flat facades, which makes it suitable for using every square inch of a small city plot.” White’s design work provided the club with some notoriety: When it opened in 1907, The New York Times described the building as “so striking as to evoke general comment.”
When it came to the club’s interiors, Marbury and fellow Colony Club member Anne Morgan, scion of J.P. Morgan, proposed de Wolfe to head up the decoration. The nomination was initially met with resistance—some of the women on the board thought the scale of the project was too great for a woman to handle. Stanford White, however, rushed to support her, saying “Give it to Elsie, and let the girl alone… She knows more than any of us.” Elsie de Wolfe spent two years collecting furnishings and executing her scheme at The Colony Club, which used chintz, soft colors, and delicate fixtures rather than heavy furnishings commonly found in other social clubs about town. Perhaps the most well-known room from the club was the tea room, designed to look almost like a garden pavilion, again underscoring her penchant for bringing the outdoors in. The furniture was made of wicker, a fountain stood in its center, and the walls were clad in green trellis. When the Colony opened in 1907, the interiors established her reputation overnight. Instead of imitating the heavy atmosphere of men’s clubs, de Wolfe introduced a casual, feminine style with an abundance of glazed chintz (immediately making her “the Chintz Lady”), tiled floors, light draperies, pale walls, wicker chairs, clever vanity tables, and the first of her many trellised rooms. The astonished reaction of the members to her illusionistic indoor garden pavilion put de Wolfe’s name on many lips and led to a number of lucrative commissions across the country.
2. Bessie Marbury’s NYC house
The Victorian lesbian power couple Elsie de Wolfe (1859-1950), often credited as America’s first professional interior designer, and Elisabeth “Bessie” Marbury (1856-1933), one of the world’s leading, and pioneering female, theatrical agents and producers, lived in this house at the corner of East 17th Street and Irving Place, near Union Square, between 1892 and 1911. They first met in 1887, and their relationship lasted nearly 40 years. When they began leasing the house in 1892, de Wolfe was an actress and Marbury was just then establishing her career as an agent to the leading European and American playwrights (her clients included Oscar Wilde). Their house was located near the home of Marbury’s parents and several friends and was close to the Union Square theaters. In 1897 and 1898, de Wolfe began to redecorate and simplify the interiors of No. 122, gaining experience and publicity that enabled her to launch her career as an interior decorator in 1905.
De Wolfe and Marbury opened their home to their many friends from abroad, and in 1897 began to host famous Sunday afternoon “teas.” These attracted American and European celebrities connected with the worlds of the arts, society, and politics. Marbury characterized the house as “a glorified Ellis Island.”After having restyled with some panache the house the two women shared on Irving Place—sweeping out her companion’s Victorian clutter, opening spaces and introducing soft, warm colors and a bit of 18th-century French elegance—de Wolfe decided in 1905 to become a professional decorator, issuing smart business cards embellished with her trademark wolf-with-nosegay crest.
3. Villa Trianon
Its previous resident had been an heir to the defunct French throne, Prince Louis d’Orléans, Duc de Nemours, who lived there with his spinster daughter, Blanche, for nearly a decade before De Wolfe and her lover, literary agent Bessy Marbury, purchased the rather tired four-bedroom residence in 1905, for the bargain price of about $12,000, or $310,000 in today’s money, and thoroughly if sensitively renovated it.
At the time of Massey’s visit, Villa Trianon’s chic contents had been reverently preserved for decades by De Wolfe’s devoted client and erstwhile landlord, French industrialist Paul-Louis Weiller (1893–1993), who used it as one of his numerous weekend houses. Ultimately he decided to sell the place and auction off De Wolfe’s belongings at Paris’s Hotel George V by Ader Picard Tajan. The most inspirational room at Villa Trianon—where the decorator spent a part of the year, barring the interruptions of war, from 1907 until her death in 1950—was De Wolfe’s own bath on the second floor. Twice the size of her adjoining bedroom, it was tricked out as a virtual salon, with antique furniture, objets d’art, paintings, and more deployed in the name of comfort and domesticity, including a corner fireplace with a mantel of black and green-veined marble; the tub surround was painted to match. That warming detail, a fire crackling behind andirons in the shape of rearing bronze d’oré horses, was a fulfillment of a youthful dream of de Wolfe’s. De Wolfe filled the panels of the room’s moss-green boiserie with a cotton fabric hand-painted with pink, red, and purple flowers—roses, peonies, and carnations predominated. Atop that hung 18th- and 19th-century Chinese reverse-mirror paintings depicting court ladies, which had previously belonged to England’s second and last Marquess of Ripon.
4. Marlene Dietrich Home
The interiors of this lovely and well-preserved Spanish Revival estate just north of Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills haven’t changed too much since the 1930s, when it was home to famed and famously private German actress Marlene Dietrich. Dietrich didn’t own the 1926 house; it was owned by her friend, socialite Countess Dorothy di Frasso, says the Wall Street Journal. It was di Frasso who hired Elsie de Wolfe—the woman “credited with single-handedly inventing the profession of interior decorating,” the New Yorker once wrote—to design these interiors. Many of de Wolfe’s Art Deco flourishes from that time, including handpainted wallpaper, can still be seen in recent listing photos.Di Frasso used the house for parties (as socialites are wont to do) and one guest, pianist José Iturbi, was so enchanted by the place, he reportedly told di Frasso that, if she ever wanted to sell, she should tell him first. When the time came (sometime in the 1940s), Iturbi bought the house and all the furnishings inside. The wallpaper and carpets, combined with mirrors and gold veneer on furniture created a warm and modern (for its time) feeling. The animal mural on one wall adds a touch of the exotic, representing a cougar in a standoff with a zebra.
5. The Bar at After All
In 1941, Elsie de Wolfe (Lady Mendl) and her husband Sir Charles Mendl were forced to leave their house “The Villa Trianon” at Versailles when the Nazis occupied Paris. Wanting to be with the royalty of America, the movie stars, Elsie and Sir Charles purchased a home in Beverly Hills and named it “After All”. Shortly thereafter they met a young artist named Tony Duquette who Elsie and Sir Charles immediately took under their wing by introducing him and his work to their international circle of friends. Elsie who was in her late 80’s commissioned Tony Duquette to provide all of the interior decoration, to her specifications, for the house. The card room which Tony and Elsie decorated with her signature high gloss magnolia leaf green walls and the specially printed fern chintz and leopard skins which were her trademark. Note the original Tony Duquette chandelier which he made for her using Venetian glass flowers.The drawing room with Tony Duquette’s famous secretary desk on the left, his painted window shades over the windows and his Neo-Baroque stands flanking the archway.Duquette created a tented tropical bar out of the formal dining room. Elsie de Wolfe felt that the dining room was the most useless room in the house, preferring to dine all over the house and in the garden. Here Duquette has electrified an 18th century Chinese birdcage as a chandelier and decorated the room with tropical bamboo furniture and leopard skin.
6. Mrs. Frick’s Boudoir
By now a household name and a celebrated authority on not just decorating, but lifestyle, de Wolfe was approached by Henry Clay Frick — the wealthy industrialist and avid art collector — to decorate his family’s new quarters in the beaux-arts mansion he was building on New York City’s Upper East Side. Frick agreed to pay de Wolfe a percentage of the cost of everything she acquired for the 14 rooms, from domestic necessities to important 18th-century antiques. The compensation agreement they struck made her a wealthy woman and has since become a standard in the industry.
7. Dormitory at Barnard College
Brooks Hall was a dormitory at Barnard College, New York’s first women’s college, part of Columbia University. The school opened in 1989 on Madison Avenue, in an ordinary brownstone. Then, however, they opened a new steel frame building to house 97 students’ rooms. Elsie was brought in because of the comedy club, because she had also designed the rooms there. It was considered more modern than other halls: heated by steam, lit by electricity and had an elevator service. It was also conveniently located next to a subway station. She was responsible for the entire building. Each room had chintz curtains and a cover for the easy chair in the same fabric. A level of individuality was inserted with different fabric themes in each room, while the lining of the curtains were uniform to provide a sleek look from the outside. Some items such as mirrors, art, footstools and flowers were brought in to bring a warm domestic feel, and a personal touch.
8. East 71st Street
Elsie went back to the brownstone, to conquer it and make it modern and light. This building was built in a way to look like a home for her and her lover, but in fact it was just used as a model home. She bought it, decorated it, and then sold it for profit. She worked with Ogden on this project, moving the entrance down from the second to the first floor, and introduced steps down into a courtyard. She really loved entrance halls, as they were an important part of the home to welcome guests. The drawing room was decorated in the traditional French style. The walls were cream, the woodwork was white, and the dominant colour was rose red. She didn’t design it as a family home, but as one for two women. It’s not surprising that she used it as a model for her next home with Lady Marbury.
Jane S. Smith, in her biography of de Wolfe, criticizes the “extraordinary social obtuseness” of suggesting that one of the bedrooms in a two-bedroom apartment could be turned into a dressing room: “The possibility of more than two people inhabiting such a space did not seem to have entered her mind.” One can hardly expect much in the way of political correctness from a writer who proclaimed a deep sympathy for Marie Antoinette, but in fact de Wolfe did possess something resembling a social conscience. She was active in the fight for woman’s suffrage, and during the First World War she offered the Villa Trianon to the Red Cross for use as a hospital and volunteered as a nurse in a burn unit (for which she received the Légion d’Honneur). Still, as the years went by she grew more and more removed from the readers of The Delineator. The highlight of her career, both professionally and financially, came just before the war, when Henry Clay Frick hired her to decorate the private rooms in the new mansion he was building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Seventieth Street. In Paris, she guided Frick on a tour of a legendary art collection that had belonged to Sir Richard Wallace, advising on purchases for Frick’s future museum. In a single extraordinary morning, Frick spent between one million and three million dollars on paintings, sculpture, tapestries, furnishings, and other objets d’art; whatever the final sum, de Wolfe’s commission of ten per cent gave her one of the highest incomes that year in America.