Elsie De Wolfe is acknowledged as the Martha Stewart of the 20th century. She was the first woman to make a fortune as a decorator and is often referred to as America’s first decorator.
De Wolfe was born Ella Anderson de Wolfe in 1865 to a fashionable New York City family. Her mother often told her that she was ugly, but just what ugly was Elsie did not know.
One day when she arrived home from school and discovered that her parents had redecorated the drawing room in a William Morris design wallpaper of gray palm leaves and splotches of bright red and green on a tan background. She threw herself on the floor, kicking and screaming, "It's so ugly! It's so ugly."
“I was an ugly child and I lived in an ugly age,” wrote de Wolfe in her memoirs. “From the moment I was conscious of ugliness and it’s relation to myself and my surroundings, my one preoccupation was to find my way out of it. In my escape, I came to the meaning of beauty.”
It was this preoccupation with visual offenses that would shape de Wolfe's path to becoming the world's most famous and highest paid decorator. Her talent for creating beautiful rooms was driven by her intense desire to rid the world of ugly decor.
"I'm going to make everything around me beautiful-- that will be my life."
But de Wolfe did not start out as a decorator. In 1884, she began her career as an actress in New York. Eventually she opened her own theatrical company where she finds herself doing less acting and more set decorating and costume design.
Her audiences were so impressed with her fashion sense and keen eye for color that they soon began asking her for advice on how to create vignettes in their homes that would reflect their personal style.
De Wolfe had a masculine manner about her, yet her signature style was very feminine. She loved chinoiserie, mirrored fireplaces, leopard print, trellis patterns, and sinous line upholstery. Her signature style is still copied today by top Manhattan interior designers.
She intensely disliked the Victorian design of heavy, red velvet drapes, dark wood, and garish patterned wallpapers. She insisted that her clients de-clutter and un-drape. She stripped down their window treatments to let light in, and replaced their miniature, hard edged, Victorian settees with over-sized comfortable chaise lounges.
In her words, “I opened the doors and windows of America and let the air and sunshine in.”
De Wolfe was a charismatic woman and had no fear of rejection. Her training as a stage actress had given her the confidence to convince her clients that her designs were better than anything else that was being offered.
She may not have been born with good looks, but she was born with good taste and she knew it. She felt that it was her duty to teach her clients what they deserved to have.
Her inspiration came from mostly 18th century French and English furnishings. She studied the French lifestyle-- entertainment, food, arts, and fashion and she introduced those elements to her clients.
In 1905, Stanford White, the architect who designed the Colony Club on Madison Avenue, helped De Wolfe secure the contact for the interiors. The building, which became the premier women's social club opened in 1907, garnered her overnight recognition.
The success of this project proved to be the tipping point that put De Wolfe on the map as America's most sought after decorator. By 1913 her business had become so successful that she rented an entire floor of offices on 5th Avenue and becomes the highest paid decorator in the world. Among her clients were Anne Vanderbilt, Condé Nast, Paul-Louis Weiller, Ann Morgan, Cole Porter and the duchess of Windsor.
De Wolfe pioneered the path for creative women to enter the field of decorating and fashion as bosses rather than seamstresses. She was a visionary, a trendsetter, a tastemaker, and a darn good businesswoman.
Had de Wolfe been born pretty, perhaps her path may have taken a different course.