Jared Goss, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Tuesday, October 13, 2015Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pmGould Theatre, Palace of the Legion of Honor
Legion of Honor
Almost more than any other figure in her field, the decorator Elsie de Wolfe (1865–1950) seems to elicit an endless amount of breathless admiration. Open any book devoted to her - there are many - and certain tropes consistently recur: she was legendary, iconic, revolutionary, the first to have (fill in the blank). Since 1938, when The New Yorker’s Janet Flanner credited Elsie de Wolfe with singlehandedly “inventing the new fashionable profession of interior decorating, countless other such lofty claims have been made and repeated: she “revolutionized twentieth-century design”; she was decorating’s “most famous and successful practitioner”; she was “a dauntless pioneer” who continues to enjoy an “enduring influence” today. Is any of this really true? Jared Goss will examine the facts and fictions of de Wolfe and her work in an attempt to recognize the true and lasting contributions of this extraordinary woman.
Without a doubt, de Wolfe (who had worked as a stage actress) was one of the first well-known female practitioners of interior design. She must be counted among a small number of early 20th century decorators with a taste for antiques rather than made-to-order modern furnishings. Elsie de Wolfe was certainly among the earliest decorators to encourage personality and humor in the interior. Above all, she was without question an interior decorator of taste, originality and accomplishment. Despite her stellar attributes, her list of projects is not especially long and, by her own admission, her home in France represented the best of her work. “If I have done anything really fine, it is the Villa Trianon.”
Following her 1926 marriage to a British diplomat, she became Lady Mendl. Janet Flanner archly observed that “Lady Mendl has always been well known for something - principally for being Miss Elsie de Wolfe.” Perhaps the most interesting aspect of de Wolfe - considered by many to be one of the most influential women of the 20th century - was her talent for self-mythologizing.