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Meet Elsie de Wolfe, America’s first interior decorator

Text by Erica Schaumberg

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In between the blurring of authenticity and fantasy is Elsie de Wolfe, a trailblazing interior designer who flaunted exceptional taste.

By Erica M. Schaumberg

Are you guilty of watching the endless stream of capsule wardrobe videos that always include the striped shirt? The striped shirt embraces the idealization of that ultra-chic French girl who eats baguettes regularly without completing workouts. Through possessing the striped shirt, we craft a fictitious lifestyle mimicking the influencers seen on our Instagram feed. Design has the ability to produce a constant blur between authenticity and fantasy. Elsie de Wolfe capitalized on creating reality through a romanticized lifestyle. She is often regarded simply as an interior designer popular in upper-class circles, but her influence reaches us today as influencers pose in the shadows of her many Vogue photographs. 

Born in New York City during 1865, de Wolfe rose to fame for her presence in aristocratic London society and her career as an actress. The starlet worked for a French hospital during WWI and even earned the Croix de Guerre and Legion of Honor awards for her war efforts. Her social presence taught her valuable skills that allowed her to market her maximalist lifestyle as a commodity. She reflected an inherent possession of glitz, glamour, and wealth through her designs that were undeniably attractive for the nouveaux riches.

Her 1913 publication, The House in Good Taste was intended for average female consumers. The book, penned by ghostwriter turned interior designer, Ruby Ross Wood, presented de Wolfe as an amateur designer with the gift of exceptional taste. Her extravagant lifestyle was exemplified within the publication but did not always relate to the average American. However, she transported her readers to a wondrous world, “The living room! Shut your eyes a minute and think what that means: A room to live in, suited to all human needs; to be sick or sorry or glad in, as the day’s happening may be; where one may come back from far-reaching ways.” The example interiors indulged in 18th-century furniture, chinoiserie, chintz, and her signature stripes. Today, we might consider these interiors flamboyant or old-fashioned, but they reflect de Wolfe’s adoration of design that personified her perception of female beauty while providing agency for women to express themselves through design.

At a time when the average woman could not vote, own property, or attend college, de Wolfe’s publication radically challenged female readers to create the lifestyle she wanted. Integrating design with femininity and elegance materialized a space that flirted with reality and fantasy. Design captivates our imagination. We create our own narrative whether it includes a gilded mirror or striped shirt. Elsie de Wolfe characterized that je ne sais quoi we can only hope to possess when we put our striped shirts on today and envision a space different from our reality. 

To learn more about Elsie de Wolfe:
Elsie de Wolfe’s Paris: Frivolity Before the Storm, by Charlie Scheips (2014) 
After All, by Elsie de Wolfe (1935)
Elsie De Wolfe: The Birth of Modern Interior Decoration, by Penny Sparke (2005)

Sources:
1. “Miss Elsie de Wolfe,” Vogue, Apr 15, 1919, 70.
2. Penny Sparke, “Elsie de Wolfe: A Professional Interior Decorator” in Shaping the American Interior Structures, Contexts, and Practices, ed. Paula Lupkin and Penny Sparke (Milton: Taylor & Francis Group 2018), 49.
3. Elsie de Wolfe, The House in Good Taste (New York: The Century Co, 1913), 148.
4. Penny Sparke, “The ‘Ideal’ and the ‘Real’ Interior in Elsie de Wolfe’s The House in Good Taste of 1913,” Journal of Design History 16, no. 1 (2003): 72.

Erica M. Schaumberg, New Jersey based historian and curator, specializes in 20th Century American material and visual culture. She received her master’s degree in History of Design and Curatorial Studies from Parsons School of Design.

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