Visible Women

The incredible true story of Elsie de Wolfe, the world’s very first interior designer

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Anna-Marie Crowhurst
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Forgotten Women is a series dedicated to giving women of history the exposure they deserve. This week, we’re paying tribute to Elsie de Wolfe, a remarkable woman who paved the way for today’s interior designers. 

If you’ve ever arranged a group of chairs “so people can talk”, or chosen a slogan cushion, you learned it from Elsie de Wolfe. Back before the advent of Instagram and bare brick walls and hanging plants and copper light switches, there was a time before interior design existed. At least not in the same way we think of it now. That’s all thanks to one Elsie de Wolfe, the first professional interior designer.

Born in 1865 in New York, de Wolfe was educated in New York and Scotland, and was presented at court to Queen Victoria in 1883. Back in New York, she developed an interest in acting, and met the woman who was to become her lifelong partner, theatrical agent Elisabeth Marbury, whose clients included Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and Sarah Bernhardt.

Making her stage debut in 1891, de Wolfe toured the country with her own theatre company. Meanwhile, she and Marbury set up house together, and became something of an arty lesbian power couple, conducting salons that attracted New York’s fashionable set. 

Elsie de Wolfe photographed in 1928 

Why was she a trailblazer? 

By 1905 de Wolfe had earned a reputation for theatrical design. She’d also decorated hers and Marbury’s grand Union Square home, charming visitors with the soft colours and modern absence of Victorian clutter. Was there, she wondered, a way to earn a living from this? De Wolfe’s New York friends got her her first big commission – fitting out a new women’s club at 120 Madison Avenue. When the Colony Club opened in 1907, de Wolfe’s designs blew everyone’s minds. Instead of the wood-panelled walls and dark fabrics of men’s clubs, de Wolfe had gone with light rooms in soft colours peppered with delicate, elegant antiques. It became her signature style. As de Wolfe said: “I opened the doors and windows of America, and let the air and sunshine in.”

What is her legacy? 

A stream of clients followed. De Wolfe made over more clubs and private homes, on the East Coast and in California. By 1913 she had her own company, a large staff and a floor of offices on Fifth Avenue. She lectured on design, and published a popular book The House In Good Taste (top tips: paint not paper for walls; place furniture to encourage conversation). Her clients included the publishing tycoon Condé Montrose Nast, Cole Porter and the Duchess of Windsor. De Wolfe became known for her Cartier jewels and blue rinse, and the cushions she had embroidered with her motto: “Never complain, never explain”.

In 1926, aged 61, de Wolfe surprised society by marrying British diplomat Sir Charles Mendl, but this seems to have been a wedding of convenience and the two lived separately – de Wolfe continued living with Marbury until the latter’s death in 1935. De Wolfe herself died in 1950 aged 84 at her home in France at the Villa Trianon near Versailles, in a beautiful room of her own creation.

The Forgotten Women series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. See more Visible Women stories here.

Images: Getty 

Illustration: Bijou Karman