Advice from 1913

Elsie de Wolfe- the first lady of interior design

Elsie de Wolfe- the first lady of interior design

The first lady of interior design proclaimed, “This is what I am always fighting in people’s houses: the unsuitability of things. They see something “pretty” and buy it…Then when they have treated each of their rooms in a different color [and in a different style], they wonder why they always fret going from one room to another.”

Despite having said this in 1913, it is still true today. It is timeless advice.

“A package came, it looks like a book,” Matt, my husband, called out to me.

“Yes! I’ve been waiting FOREVER for it to come. I had to wait for the store to find the copy I wanted. It was published in 1913.”

“What? Is it a history book, wait, is it some rare copy of something?” a slightly worried tone began to creep into Matt’s voice.

“Don’t worry! It was only $15.” [A note to my ladies, always set price points that sound reasonable to your significant other. All of my books cost between $10-$20 and all of the furniture and pieces I come home with cost between $50-$75. I am REALLY good at finding miraculous deals. 😉 ]

de Wolfe's Colony Club's Trelis Room

de Wolfe’s Colony Club’s Trellis Room

All joking aside, I WAS so excited that Elsie de Wolfe’s The House in Good Taste had arrived. After having restyled some friends’ homes with great elan and flair, she decided to become a decorator in 1905. She made up smart business cards with a trademark logo and scored her first job, the Colony Club, Manhattan’s first exclusive club for women.

She has so much great advice, but this is what hit me the most last week as I was trying to figure out what to do with an entryway table I purchased (for only $50 of course! 😉 )

Surround yourself with beauty, but beauty requires taste, and taste requires restraint, proportion, and suitability.

It does not take a lot of money to live in a delightful space. Stand in the doorway of a room and look around…  what do you see? One of the things I saw in my home was a blank white wall. 

photograph by Derry Moore

A room decorated by de Wolfe; photograph by Derry Moore. Note the simplicity of the tabletops.

Does it all look like it came from the same store or same time period? If so, you need something jolting in the room. Beauty is found in the jolts… the pop of color or sheen of lacquer… the gilded mirror on a matte wall… or the complementary incongruence of rustic and luxe.

When you look around your room, where does your eye travel? And does it travel smoothly? If there is no focal point, you need to rearrange. If there are too many focal points, you need to rearrange. The best advice is to first start by rearranging what you have.

Empty your tabletops of unnecessary items. Simplicity is best on tabletops, as seen in this salon.  If your table is against a wall, it acts as an anchor and there needs to be something isolated hanging in the middle of it. Mrs de Wolfe suggests a “real work of art.” Since our only real work of art is something I painted (and is currently hanging in the garage), I think I will use a mirror.

She also said that your first results from rearranging and clearing may not be charming, but you’ll be learning… and soon your room will have a better sense of restraint, space, and taste.

My next post will focus on how I used Elsie de Wolfe’s advice in my own home. For my “jolt”, I painted a half moon wooden table that I found at Encore Decor with Amy Howard’s lacquer paint.

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