Olivia von Halle | A New Way of Living
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“We must… visualize our homes not as so many specially designated rooms and convenient closets, but as individual expressions of ourselves, of the future we plan, of our dreams for our children. The ideal house is the house that has been long planned for, long awaited,” the famed interior designer Elsie de Wolfe observed in her bestselling book The House in Good Taste in 1913.

 

Elsie de Wolfe wasn’t just any interior designer. She was the mother of the discipline: a spirited, dedicated woman whose unswerving taste transformed people’s living rooms and ushered in a more modern approach to decorating one’s home as the Gilded Age era gave way to the 21st century.

 

Born in 1865, de Wolfe grew up in New York and attended finishing school in Scotland before returning to her home city, where she took to the stage. Although her acting talents weren’t highly praised, her attire was. She chose the following season’s costumes from a series of Parisian couturiers – and where she trod, others followed. Her eye for beauty and forward-looking design became her biggest asset when she closed the stage curtains for a final time and set up as a decorator in 1905. In doing so, she cemented her status as one half of a power couple alongside her partner Elisabeth ‘Bessie’ Marbury, a theatrical and literary agent whose clients included Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw.

Elsie de Wolfe’s design philosophy was both sprightly and thoughtful. She had a horror of heavy, dark Victorian furnishings (in her memoir she recounted falling down and having a tantrum as a child when confronted with her mother’s new William Morris wallpaper), and favoured a deep understanding of proportion, simplicity, suitability and personal expression. To her, “function follow[ed] form.” Predictably, she loved light and space. Less predictably, she had a real affinity for florals and leopard print. One of her first jobs was The Colony Club, a new member’s club for women that Marbury had helped to found. Eschewing the smoky, leathery shadows of men’s clubs, de Wolfe went for a palette of chintz, wicker, pale paint colours and a series of trellises that would soon become a signature. The perfect portfolio for her talents, the club was an explosive asset to her career – and soon her clients included Hollywood actresses, opera organisations, and the industrialist and art collector Henry Clay Frick.

De Wolfe worked all over America, as well as further afield – one passion project being the eighteenth-century Villa Trianon in Versailles (it was built by Louis XV), bought with Marbury in 1903. Described as “a fairy-tale come true,” de Wolfe recounted “How many, many times we peeped through the high iron railing at this enchanted domain…The garden was overgrown with weeds and shrubbery, the house was shabby and sadly in need of paint. We sighed and thought how happy would be our fortune if we might some day penetrate the mysteries of the tangled garden and the abandoned villa. Little did we dream that this would one day be our home.”

 

They restored the grand, dilapidated building to its former glories and turned it into a social hub. Guests from Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli to Douglas Fairbanks graced its glittering parties, which became legendary on the French social scene. “She mixes people like a cocktail—and the result is sheer genius,” Wallis Simpson observed of de Wolfe’s hostess skills. Her last Circus Ball in 1939 before war broke out in Europe featured tightrope-walkers and Lipizzaner horses in jewelled harnesses (images from the evening were recently immortalised in Elsie de Wolfe’s Paris: Frivolity Before a Storm) and went on until dawn.

This season, Olivia von Halle pays homage to de Wolfe’s prodigious talents not only in the Wolfe pyjama – an elegant silk-twill palazzo pyjama set – but the Godard print. Among her Stateside projects, de Wolfe decorated the Countess Dorothy di Frasso’s sprawling 1926 Spanish Revival home in Los Angeles. Also a prodigious party hostess, di Frasso was a woman embedded in Hollywood life who took no part in the movie business (she famously had affairs with Gary Cooper and gangster Bugsy Siegel). Her Beverley Hills house was classic de Wolfe, full of chinoiserie, mirrors, antique furniture, hand-painted wallpaper and art deco flourishes. On one wall, there was a mural of a zebra and a black panther commissioned from artist Charles Baskerville. This mural was later immortalised in a portrait of Marlene Dietrich, who rented the house from di Frasso in the mid-1930s, the actor posed – half-fearsome, half-sultry – in front of the tussling animals.  

 

The Godard print takes direct inspiration from this wild and wonderful mural, with its lively celebration of the natural world. Combining the elegance and play that defined de Wolfe’s ethos with a touch of her unmistakable glamour and gusto for life, this bold print on silk crêpe de chine would be right at home in one of her meticulously designed spaces. One can imagine her donning the Queenie Godard robe for coffee in a garden room full of wicker furniture and green trellises, or the Casablanca Godard pyjamas for lounging in front of Baskerville’s mural. The Icon Godard dress could have been taken for a spin at one of her sparkling parties too, whirled around the dancefloor until sunrise.

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