An Inside Look at First Interior Decorator : San Juan Library Is Featuring Elsie de Wolfe

Once upon a time, there was an American doctor's daughter, a sometime-actress who wore beautiful clothes and met all the right people.

Then, in 1905, at age 40, Elsie de Wolfe decided to put her good taste and her hostess-with-the-mostest skills to work. Smart, original and determined, she became the world's first professional, modern-day interior decorator.

"The World of Elsie de Wolfe," at the San Juan Capistrano Library through Jan. 16, offers a glimpse of the legacy of this one-time Southern Californian. Her one-woman revolution in home design comes into crisp focus with a pair of model rooms, a gallery of paintings she commissioned of her interiors and a display of adoring press clippings.

Before De Wolfe, wealthy Americans went to a select group of major art dealers to buy "important" signed pieces of furniture from the bewigged and furbelowed eras of France. Plunked down ceremoniously in the living room, they did the job of advertising their purchaser's net worth. Comfort had nothing to do with it.

Enter the American woman who spent 27 years redecorating a chateau in Versailles that she had picked up for a song. A woman whose guest lists included the likes of actress Mary Pickford and socialite Wallis Simpson and the kings of assorted European countries. A woman awarded the Legion of Honor for turning her extravagant home into a nursing station for wounded soldiers in World War I. A woman who ordered short skirts from couturier Molyneux when demure hem lengths were the rule and who did her yoga exercises every day years before fitness was in fashion.

De Wolfe offered her wealthy acquaintances a startlingly breezy, practical approach to making a house a home:

It was OK to buy ordinary, non-museum-quality antiques, she said. In fact, she would sell them to you. Paint your room white, she told her clients, and replace those dark, dreary fabrics with airy, flower-printed chintz. Instead of lining up all your furniture against the wall, organize it so it works with your life. If you're sitting on a couch, you need a table where you can park a glass or an ashtray.

Her taste changed over the course of her career, easing from the aristocratic stiffness of Louis XVI to the drop-dead chic of art deco. But throughout, her advice retained its cheerfully autocratic stamp. For those who couldn't afford her fees, her book, "The House in Good Taste," offered a shoestring route to smart design, with some tart remarks along the way (if we would all stop buying manufacturers' hideous furniture, she wrote, they'll be obliged to make better products).

By the time of her death in 1950, her reputation had been firmly established with major commissions from such clients as actress Sarah Bernhardt, writer Oscar Wilde and industrialist Henry Clay Frick.

"She likes tents," chirrups a two-page spread in a vintage magazine displayed at the entrance to the library. "She likes topiary in her gardens and playful elegance. . . . She likes leaf green with white. . . . She likes the gleam of mirrors. . . . She likes the lacyness of gardens, uses lattices, flowered prints. . . . She likes to carry her mottoes with her."

Literally! Embroidered on throw pillows, those mottoes constituted a strange, homespun quirk in an otherwise supremely elegant woman. They offered such morsels of wisdom as: "You Can't Take It With You--There Are No Pockets in a Shroud," "Never Complain Never Explain" and "It Takes a Stout Heart to Live Without Roots."

A facsimile of one of these pillows ("A Fool and His Money Are Soon Invited Everywhere") adorns a couch in the San Juan Capistrano exhibit, in the green-and-cream model room re-created by Los Angeles designer Hutton Wilkinson. Outfitted with De Wolfe-approved fern-printed chintz (from Brunschwig & Fils) and furniture (from her own collection and the Otis Shepard House in St. Paul, Minn.), this room, Wilkinson said, represents "a 1940s Elsie," her late period.

A rabbit fur throw (making do for Elsie's mink) flops over the bed; a leopard rug covers part of the floor; statues balance baskets filled with ferns; brightly colored parrots sit on the mantel, and curtains and upholstery are done up in the casual chintz. The grandest piece of furniture is a white secretary that De Wolfe decorated with decoupage flowers. A mixture of Louis XVI chairs and smart, lacquered objects achieves a light, elegant effect.

In contrast, an identically proportioned room in the exhibit is devoted to the styleless muddle of furnishings Elsie knew as a child. The Moroccan-inspired hodgepodge of patterns and textures in gold, red and green were pet themes of the so-called Esthetic Movement, popularized by Socialist, poet, pamphleteer and design prophet William Morris--although Morris would have hated the sentimental paintings of animals on the walls and the feckless sprinkling of Victorian lace doilies.

The exhibit really would have made more sense had this room been outfitted in the stiff, red-velvet-and-horsehair decor of the turn-of-the-century moguls whose taste De Wolfe was so intent on reforming. But even the charming coziness of this setting is overdone to the stifling point, with so many layers and designs--and heavy drapes sealing out the light from the windows.

De Wolfe's approach, on the other hand, was all muted dazzle and light--just the thing for Southern California, which is where she wound up during World War II when the Nazis took over her French chateau, Villa Trianon.

Apparently undaunted by the prospect of starting her life all over again, Lady Mendl (as she was now known after a late marriage to Sir Charles, press attache of the British Embassy in Paris) bought an ugly mansion in Beverly Hills and gave it the Cinderella treatment, beginning with a coat of white paint and a set of green awnings.

She stormed the sleepy interior with a phalanx of white, tufted-leather banquettes; a gleaming army of mirrors; gold-and-white chairs; white, glazed-linen curtains, and off-white rugs. A tented area outdoors (approximated in the exhibit as an enclosure done up in cream-and-green fabric with a statue of a shepherdess and trompe l'oeil fountains) offered table seating for 40 guests. The dining room ("waste space," according to De Wolfe) became a bar; the living room acquired a "conversation center" with comfortable couches.

Wryly dubbed "After All," the house--which still stands on Benedict Canyon Drive near Summit--became a meeting place for prominent Americans as well as displaced European intelligentsia.

Designer Tony Duquette worked on the house as a young protege of De Wolfe (a photo of her with a fluffy dog on an L-shaped couch is inscribed to "Tony, the only one!"). Duquette, director of the Elsie de Wolfe Foundation, calls the Beverly Hills home "a complete world for about 10 years, from 1941 to 1951 . . . a salon, as in Europe, where people came every day for cocktails and met film stars and writers and directors."

Says Wilkinson: "Elsie was a brilliant businesswoman. She had what we call marketable charm. . . . She taught (her clients) how to entertain, how to dress--and took a percentage of it all."

"The World of Elsie de Wolfe," co-sponsored by the Elsie de Wolfe Foundation and Libros y Artes, the library's cultural support group of the San Juan Capistrano Library, remains on view at the library, 31495 El Camino Road, through Jan. 16. Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Admission , with docent tour, is $2.50 to benefit the city's proposed Decorative Arts and Study Center. A major Orange County landmark designed by Michael Graves, the library itself is well worth the trip. Call (714) 493-1752 for more information.

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