Advice from Design Legends :: Elsie de Wolfe on "Suitability" + Other Topics

Elsie de Wolfe in front of an armoire designed for her by Tony Duquette

Elsie de Wolfe (1865-1950) is often referred to as “The First Lady of Interior Decoration” and was a woman who knew her worth and was not afraid to charge for it.  She pioneered the practice of charging friends for her decorative savoir faire and created a lifestyle for herself that her friends and clients wanted to emulate.

She purged the dark and fussy Victorian furnishings in her clients’ homes and brought in fresh arrangements, styles and materials that remain the foundation of modern interiors.  De Wolfe wrote a series of articles for the magazine The Delineator; these articles were later compiled and published as The House in Good Taste in 1913.  The book remains a  staple in many interior designer and decorators’ libraries (this designer included).

Designed by deWolfe for Bess Marbury

Here is some advice on suitability from the doyenne of decoration::

“When I am asked to decorate a new house, my first thought is suitability.  My next thought is proportion. Always I keep in mind the importance of simplicity.  First I study the people who are to live in the house, and their needs...  For the time being, I really am the chatelaine of the house.”

Villa Trianon, deWolfe's home on the outskirts of Versailles, France

“We are sure to judge a person in whose house we find ourselves for the first time, by their surroundings.  We judge their temperament, their habits, their inclinations, by the interior of their home.  We may talk of the weather, but we are looking at the furniture.  We attribute vulgar qualities to those who are content to live in ugly surroundings.  We endow with refinement and charm the person who welcomes us in a delightful room, where the colors blend and the proportions are as perfect as in a picture.  After all, what surer guarantee can there be of a person’s character, natural and cultivated, inherent and inherited, than taste?  It is a compass that never errs.”

Designed by deWolfe for the Countess Dorothy di Frasso in Beverly Hills (image via house + garden)

“Why should we Americans run after styles and periods of which we know nothing?  Why should we not be content with the fundamental things?  The formal French room is very delightful in the proper place, but when it is unsuited to the people who must live in it, it is just as bad as a sham room.  The woman who wears paste jewels is not so conspicuously wrong as the woman who plasters herself with too many real jewels at the wrong time!"
de Wolfe's bathroom in her Paris flat featured in House + Garden, 1950 :: photo by Ronny Jacques

de Wolfe's bathroom in her Paris flat featured in House + Garden, 1950 :: photo by Ronny Jacques

“This is what I am always fighting in people’s houses: the unsuitability of things.  The foolish person goes about from shop to shop and buys as their fancy directs.  They see something ‘pretty’ and buy it, though it has no reference either in form or color to the scheme of their house.”

Salon at de Wolfe's Villa Trianon outside of Paris

“Don’t go about the furnishing of your house with the idea that you must select the furniture of some one period and stick to that.  It isn’t  at all necessary.  There are old English chairs and tables of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that fit into our quiet, spacious twentieth-century country homes.  Lines and fabrics are the things to be compared”

Tea house designed by Elsie de Wolfe

“It is such a relief to return to the tranquil, simple forms of furniture, and to decorate our rooms by a process of elimination.  How many rooms have I not cleared of junk -- this heterogeneous mass of ornamental “period” furniture and bric-a-brac bought to make a room “look cozy.”  Once cleared of these, the simplicity and dignity of the room comes back, the architectural spaces are freed and now stand in their proper relation to the furniture. In other words, the architecture of the room becomes the decoration."