Elsie De Wolfe: The Mother of Interior Design

Elsie De Wolfe was an actress, designer, and possibly the original “influencer”.  She was one of the first people to tint her hair shades of blue and purple in order to match her outfit, and made carrying a small dog everywhere trendy long before Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.  Born in 1859 Wolfe grew up in a period of time where the weighty Victorian aesthetic was all the rage.  Dark colors and heavy fabrics took up most of the spaces, and Wolfe famously despised all of it.

She did not begin her working life as a designer.  In the 1890s she began a career as an actress.  This, albeit short lived, career introduced her to the world of costume and set design.  It quickly became apparent that Wolfe was not an amazing actress but her work in costume design led to critical acclaim.  

Her first true experiment with interior design was in her own home Irving Place where she lived with her dear friend Elisabeth “Bessie” Marbury.  The two were considered to be in a “Boston Marriage” where two upper-class women lived together, financially independent, and without a man.  Marbury encouraged Wolfe to redecorate the house and cast out the dark Victorian styles to create a new home in her fashion.

Her first professional project began in 1905 when she was commissioned to design the interiors of The Colony Club, one of the first women’s clubhouses in the US.  It was founded primarily by suffragettes.  Wolfe wanted to avoid the stereotypical trademarks of men’s clubhouses that featured heavy drapery, dark interiors, and weighty woodwork.  She wanted to give women a space that felt uniquely their own.  In contrast to the male spaces she used pale colors, wicker furniture, lots of floral prints, and even tiled the floors.  She famously said, “I opened the doors and windows of America, and let the air and sunshine in.”

When the club opened in 1907 the décor was lauded by the public.  Wolfe officially became one of the most sought after designers and almost single handedly created the profession of interior designer.  After the debut of The Colony Club she was commissioned to design more clubs, opera boxes, private homes, and even a dormitory at Barnard College.  Some of the most famous patrons included: Amy Vanderbilt, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and even the incredibly wealthy industrialist Henry Clay Frick.  She became so popular, and her opinion was held in such high regard that Theodore Dreiser, the editor of the women’s magazine The Delineator, gave her a decorating column.  This column is considered to be one of the first DIY columns in existence.  These pieces were later gathered and compiled into a book that was published in 1913 titled “The House in Good Taste”.  To this day Elsie De Wolfe is heralded as one of the great designers of our time, and has even been given the name: The Mother of Interior Design.