cover image Elsie de Wolfe: The Birth of Modern Interior Decoration

Elsie de Wolfe: The Birth of Modern Interior Decoration

Penny Sparke. Acanthus Press, $0 (371pp) ISBN 978-0-926494-27-5

An actress and social climber with a love for the dramatic, Elsie de Wolfe defined interior decorating from the gilded age through two world wars, the jazz age and the onset of modernism. She began with the residence she shared with companion and theatrical manager Elisabeth Marbury and expanded her client list to include newly moneyed Americans looking for social respectability via graceful, 18th-century-inspired interiors: Anne Morgan, Conde Nast, Henry Clay Frick, J. Pierpont Morgan, Anne Vanderbilt and the Duchess of Windsor. In her later career, she traded in genteel American aristocracy for rising Hollywood stars such as Ethel Barrymore and Gary Cooper. Sparke proceeds through these chintz-draped residences of the ""smart set"" like any good docent: a touch of background followed by a detailed tour: ""De Wolfe was extremely particular about the equipment of dressing rooms and boudoirs. Many drawers were needed to contain letter-writing equipment, among other things, to save having to go into another room to get them. A hollow table on casters was also thought to be an asset in a dressing room, as were a heated towel rack, a wall cabinet, lots of shelves and hooks, and a shallow bottle closet. The wall had to be lined with closets, painted with bright colors inside and 'fitted with perfumed pads.' Even the clothes hangers had to be covered with chintz."" In a large format coffee-table book illustrated with 273 black-and-white and just 12 color archival photographs and illustrations, descriptions do as good a job as possible of providing the reader with a sense of the mauves and greens that were a hallmark of de Wolfe's work. Well-written-Sparke and Owens manage to keep what could have been repetitious accounts of Chinoiserie panels and rococo bibelots varied and interesting-it is the most thorough accounting of de Wolfe's work to date.