Curator Hutton Wilkinson has these words of caution to anyone contemplating a tour of the latest exhibit at the Decorative Arts Study Center in San Juan Capistrano:
"It isn't for everyone," he says, ushering a visitor past a whimsical console and mirror made of antlers and seashells by California artist Tony Duquette. "It's not Crate & Barrel, (the housewares store in South Coast Plaza). It's unusual, special."
And so it is.
In presenting a retrospective look at the designers, decorators and arbiters of taste who influenced 20th Century interiors, the center has assembled original furniture and memorabilia from 12 leading "taste makers"--each of whom bucked contemporary trends and altered the course of home decorating.
"Decorative Arts of the 20th Century: Master Decorators," on view through May 11, shows through a series of design vignettes the progression of interior design from Elsie de Wolfe at the turn of the century to Michael Taylor in the '70s and '80s.
Some of these designers' innovations have become so entrenched in modern decors they can't possibly have the same impact on viewers that they had when first introduced.
"Some things won't knock your socks off," admits Wilkinson, a Los Angeles-based interior designer who serves on the board of the Elsie de Wolfe Foundation, the exhibit's largest donor.
One takes for granted, for example, the use of natural materials in the interiors by the late Michael Taylor, who, Wilkinson says, "invented the California look for the '80s." The center re-created one of Taylor's design displays for the exhibit--leather Mexican chairs painted white and a mirror with a shell-encrusted frame. It's a style that has been endlessly --and often poorly--imitated.
Other pieces, however, are still fresh and captivating, such as the secretary desk designed for De Wolfe by Duquette in 1941. The desk features carved plaster leaves, figures and ornaments painted in a black and green lacquer.
"This is a piece of jewelry," Wilkinson says. "It's exemplary of a one-of-a-kind decoration."
By showing such pieces, the center hopes to inspire visitors to seek out their own unusual creations.
"We're trying to influence the viewer to go home and create individual interiors as opposed to going to a showroom and buying mass-produced stuff which anyone can get," Wilkinson says. "We want the average Joe to come away with an expanded awareness, to realize they can take seashells and antlers and come away with something beautiful."
One does not have to be rich to defy what Wilkinson calls "the showroom mentality." Taylor, after all, achieved his look with inexpensive Mexican furniture and seashells.
"Anyone with a glue gun could do it," Wilkinson says.
The center is not the place to make mental notes of the arrangements, then rush home and try to reproduce them in the living room. Instead, Wilkinson hopes to encourage visitors to go home and follow their own creative instincts, just as these taste makers did.
"Call it the Tao of decoration. It has to just come to you. Take the path of least resistance."
While their personal styles differed greatly, each of the featured designers broke away from traditional decors to follow their own instincts.
Wilkinson credits De Wolfe with inventing the profession of interior design and influencing an army of imitators.
"Her friends wanted to copy her," he says. So she helped them coordinate their interiors.
"She threw out the old, dark and plush Victorian interiors," he says. "She brought in trellis work and used it on the inside of the house. She used lightweight, small scale furniture.
"Elsie used to say, 'I believe in optimism and a lot of white paint.' "
To illustrate De Wolfe's contributions, the exhibit features new paintings of her early 1900s interiors by Julian La Trobe. La Trobe's paintings capture her light, airy rooms better than any black and white photograph.
Elsewhere in the exhibit, over-sized photographs help illustrate a designer's style in a way that a few pieces of furniture cannot.
English designer Syrie Maugham was known for her all-white rooms. A photographic blow-up of her London drawing room taken in 1930 best shows Maugham's white-on-white decors, with its white rug, wall of mirrors and white satin sofas. Later she adopted more colorful schemes.
She is represented in the exhibit by a ruby velvet sofa, still in its original upholstery, that she created for actress and comedienne Ina Claire. Maugham liked to say "a sofa should never look like a sofa but should look like a pile of rich stuffs and carpets piled high on the prow of a pirate's ship."
The New York studio apartment of Billy Baldwin, a portion of which has been re-created for the exhibit, perhaps looks the most "homey" to visitors. The vignette has two armless slipper chairs upholstered in a natural linen, a Chinese folding screen and a table draped in a neutral taupe fabric.
"Baldwin gave us the clean, no-nonsense look for houses in the '60s and '70s," Wilkinson says. He liked comfortable, slip-covered sofas and chairs and pale neutral backgrounds mixed with fine art.
The vignettes, positioned throughout two galleries, sometimes offer too little space to do the taste makers justice.
New York decorator Rose Cumming, for example, was known for her gleaming interiors adorned with metallic wall coverings, mirrors, polished parquet floors, crystal and silks during her heyday in the early 1900s.
Her vignette, with its panel of hand-painted Chinese wallpaper, a Chinese pagoda and a French-style chair upholstered in a glistening brocade, remains true to her spirit but doesn't quite match the splendor such effects would have if reproduced in their original scale.
"Her interiors glowed from within," Wilkinson says.
Wilkinson's favorite designer is California artist Duquette--the only featured decorator still living--who created the impressive seashell and antler console and mirror in 1952. On each side of the console are figurative lamps mounted on antlers and first shown at the Louvre Museum in Paris in 1951. The entire piece is set against a wall of abalone shell, a favorite material of the artist.
"Duquette has said if there were one abalone shell in the world, wars would be fought over it."
Wilkinson, who worked with Duquette, calls his mentor's style "natural baroque."
"Can you think of anything more simple than a gnarled tree root? He has an art for taking everyday ordinary objects and turning them into magical ornaments."
Although many designers admired and collaborated with each other, particularly De Wolfe and Duquette, not everyone liked each other's style.
English designer Robsjohn Gibbings, a no-nonsense decorator and modernist who even in the '30s favored clean and simple lines, accused De Wolfe of setting interior design back 100 years.
Gibbings set up shop in New York City in the late 1920s and found inspiration in antiquity. The center has displayed his Klismos chair and Egyptian panel copied from antiquity as examples of his classical taste.
In contrast to Gibbings' stark interiors, the flowery drawing rooms of Colefax & Fowler are a lesson in "organized clutter."
The English decorating company, founded in the 1920s and still going strong today, is largely responsible for exporting an Americanized version of the English country look that became the rage in the '80s.
Floral wallpaper and curtains, shown in the exhibit, tole-painted furniture and comfortable chintz-covered couches all owe much of their popularity to Colefax & Fowler.
"Nothing here is intimidating," says Wilkinson, in a cool tone that suggests this is not his favorite in the exhibit.
Nevertheless, their key role in interior design is undeniable.
All of those included in the exhibit--Duquette, De Wolfe, Maugham, Gibbings, Baldwin, Taylor, Cumming, Adrian, Jean-Michel Frank, Frances Elkins, Billy Haines and Carlos de Beistegui--were chosen because they "influenced how our houses look today."
Clearly, those who do not innovate and create a look, do not rate.
"We only did this exhibit for the pleasure of not including certain people," Wilkinson adds with a smile.
To fully appreciate each designer's contribution, those not trained in interior design can take docent tours. The Decorative Arts Study Center is a nonprofit organization and cost of admission is $3. The fee includes entry into the garden exhibit, featuring re-creations of 1928 landscapes by Florence Yoch.
Exhibit hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The Decorative Arts Study Center is at 31431 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. (714) 496-2132.
"I hope people leave here not being afraid to express their own creativity," Wilkinson says. "It's the ongoing battle against the least common denominator. Never settle for anything but the best."