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Legendary L.A. Designer Tony Duquette Dies at 85 : Style: Visionary blazed his own trail. His work ranged from interiors of homes to jewelry.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tony Duquette, a legendary maverick and visionary in the world of design who decorated homes for the likes of J. Paul Getty, Elizabeth Arden and the Duchess of Windsor and, until recently, was the only American to have a one-man show at the Louvre, has died.

Duquette died Thursday at UCLA Medical Center at the age of 85 after a heart attack.

Although technically a designer, Duquette was much more than the word suggests. In a career spanning more than 65 years, he created everything from movie sets to theatrical costumes to private interiors for the rich and famous.

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His style--with its insistence on opulence--was unique and completely nonderivative. Perpetually outside the shifting perimeters of fashion, Duquette remained untouched by trends and fads. And lately his style was enjoying something of a renaissance.

“He was not concerned with design . . . [nor] with how well something worked, how practical it was,” said Jared Goss, a senior research assistant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “He simply liked the idea of creating something that was aesthetically pleasing.

“He was an enormously sophisticated man,” Goss added.

Hutton Wilkinson, Duquette’s longtime business partner, said Friday that his friend “had an extraordinary life.”

Extraordinary may well be too small a word to describe the life, and career, of this particular man. Named by Vogue magazine this year as the “20th century’s foremost designer,” Duquette was more wizard than designer. A self-proclaimed master of the objet trouve, he used anything and everything he could get his hands on--from chicken wire to lapis, from skateboards to 18-karat gold--to create a signature aesthetic at once Baroque and primitive, Oriental and New Age.

And he did it within a seemingly endless variety of venues, designing interiors, furniture, theatrical sets, costumes and jewelry, as well as sculpting, painting and creating a series of homes that demanded terms such as enchanting, magical and Shangri-La.

A California native, Duquette got his start designing window and store displays at Bullock’s and Robinsons. During this time he was discovered by Elsie de Wolfe, then America’s reigning arbiter of taste, who demanded that the young man make her a meuble.

In response, he created a green, white and black lacquered secretaire, inlaid with shells, mirrors and emerald Peking glass and topped with dancing figures. Enchanted, De Wolfe became his social patroness. Soon he was designing for George Cukor and David O. Selznick, socializing with Greta Garbo and Mary Pickford. In 1949, in fact, he married painter Elizabeth Johnstone at Pickfair, the estate of Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.

After a brief stint in the Army, Duquette opened his first solo show of sculptures at the Mitch Leison Gallery on La Cienega. Five years later, in 1951, he was the first American to have a one-man show at the Louvre.

He designed interiors for the legendary Hollywood nightclub Mocambo, the Los Angeles Music Center and Elizabeth Arden’s Irish castle. He designed movie sets for Vincente Minnelli’s “Ziegfeld Follies” and “Kismet” and in 1961 shared a Tony Award with the late designer Adrian for the costumes in the original Broadway production of “Camelot.”

Yet as much as he created, it seemed, he was fated to lose. Two fires consumed enormous portions of his life’s work. First in 1988, the San Francisco pavilion-studio he shared with his wife was consumed in a blaze that destroyed, among other things, the ornate sculpture series “Our Lady Queen of Angels” that Duquette had designed for Los Angeles’ bicentennial.

Then in 1993, a brush fire sweeping through the Santa Monica Mountains wiped out the wonderland that was Sortilegium, the Duquettes’ fabulous ranch, taking with it pagodas, gardens and many pieces of original art, including a series of sculptures titled “The Phoenix Rising From His Flames,” which Duquette had created in answer to the first fire.

The phoenix became, and remained, Duquette’s symbol; those pieces of the series that survived occupied a prominent place at his Benedict Canyon home, another fantasy of Balinese prayer houses and Oriental turrets called Dawnridge. The phoenix, with its evocation of regeneration, of re-creation, of relentless life, fully captured the essence of the man and the artist.

How else to describe a man who celebrated his 85th birthday by launching a line of 18-karat jewelry, designing a collection of brooches for Tom Ford’s spring Gucci collection, and presiding over a star-studded party at Union Station, held as a fund-raiser for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Decorative Arts Council.

“It really is quite something,” he said, viewing the crowd, many of whom were wearing his creations. Resplendent in lapis and aquamarine brocade shaman robes, a Nepalese hat of turquoise and seashells and a characteristic blinding smile, Duquette was the epitome of gorgeousness, quite in keeping with his having been named to the 1999 Best Dressed List.

His last work of interior design, which he finished in June, was a Venetian palazzo for socialite Dodie Rosekrans. After that, he had planned to concentrate on his jewelry: huge, ornate pieces.

“When you think of it, in his youth, he was designing sets for Fred Astaire musicals,” said Wilkinson, who had worked with Duquette for more than 20 years, “and in his 80s, he was designing a jewelry collection for Tom Ford at Gucci.

“As a friend,” Wilkinson added, “he was amazingly generous, extraordinarily polite. If he believed in you, there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for you. He helped so many young artists.

“It really is the end of an era.”

Funeral services are private.

Duquette is survived by sister Jeanne Neuman of Pasadena, a nephew and two nieces.

Times staff writer Barbara Thomas contributed to this story.


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