edited by Stanley Abercrombie -- Interior Design, 8/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
Frances Elkins: Interior Design
by Stephen M. Salny
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, $65
208 pages, 160 color illustrations
Stephen M. Salny, who wrote The Country Houses of David Adler, has made the natural segue to a monograph on Adler's sister, interior designer Frances Elkins. The siblings collaborated seamlessly—though, looking at their work separately, one could make the case that Elkins, based in Monterey, California, was more adventurous than her Chicago brother. As Salny comments on one Elkins installation, "The placement of contemporary Giacometti plaster vases on antique Chippendale commodes was unheard of in her day."
Salny shows us 29 of her interiors. Though mostly residential, they include three clubs, a clothing store, a scheme for Monterey storefronts, and the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu. Most important in this chronological tour is the first project, her own home. Casa Amesti, built of adobe and redwood in the 1830's, was bought by Elkins and her husband in 1918 and restored with her brother. She daringly filled the colonial with a mixture of traditional and modern pieces, including some in the style of Jean-Michel Frank, and chose blue and yellow for virtually every accent. Completed as her marriage was dissolving, the interiors attracted much attention and launched her career.
Elkins's work was influential not only in California but also internationally. The great Billy Baldwin once called her "perhaps the most creative decorator we ever had." Salny's monograph has made an important contribution to the record. As Interior Design Hall of Famer Albert Hadley writes in his foreword, "This book is a treasure. It is history at its best."
Elsie de Wolfe: The Birth of Modern Interior Decoration
by Penny Sparke
New York: Acanthus Press, $85
372 pages, 300 illustrations (12 color)
Elsie de Wolfe, we've read all too often, was the first interior designer—which would surely come as a surprise to Michelangelo and Robert Adam. She's also been called the first professional designer, and she did take some highly innovative steps, such as using business cards (imprinted with a wolf bearing a rose in its teeth). Penny Sparke, too smart for such sweeping claims, avoids them by calling De Wolfe's work the birth of modern interior decoration. Even then, one could quibble about birth and modern. De Wolfe's career followed those of William Morris, Antoni Gaudí, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and Josef Hoffmann, and her work was considerably less avant-garde than theirs.
Which isn't to say the new book is unwelcome. On the contrary, because De Wolfe's accomplishments are so clouded by exaggeration, it's helpful to have her career examined by as authoritative a figure as Sparke, professor of design history at Kingston University London.
This book opens with De Wolfe's first career, the stage—a dubious profession for a socially ambitious young woman in the 19th century. Her reputation for stylish costumes seems to have outshone her acting success, and in 1905, at 40, she wrote, "I am going in now for interior decoration. By that I mean supplying objets d'art and giving advice regarding the decoration of their houses to wealthy persons who do not have the time, inclination, nor culture to do such work for themselves. It is nothing new. Women have done the same thing before."
Her earliest interior was a New York town house for herself and her companion, Elisabeth Marbury. Its renovation would yield many illustrations for The House in Good Taste, De Wolfe's 1913 book. Few would call the rooms modern today, but back then they were brighter, lighter, fresher, and less cluttered than Victorian predecessors. Another early project, the Colony Club—in a building by Stanford White—provided her with important clients in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. For the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, De Wolfe designed interiors in London, Paris and Cap d'Antibes in France, and Nassau in the Bahamas. Sparke also shows De Wolfe's own apartment in Paris and house in nearby Versailles as well as her final Los Angeles home, After All.
With its wonderful vintage photographs and richly informative text, this book belongs to an admirable series edited by Mitchell Owens. Other subjects will include Jansen, Billy Baldwin, Ruby Ross Wood, and Syrie Maugham, legends all.
What They're Reading...
Margo Grant Walsh
Vice chair emerita of Gensler and member of the Interior Design Hall of Fame
Decorative Arts 1850-1950
by Judy Rudoe
London: British Museum Press, $44
336 pages, 155 illustrations (25 color)
Since retiring last year, Walsh has indulged her passion for studying the arts and crafts movement, particularly the silver. This has involved travel across the U.S. and to London, Berlin, Vienna, and Budapest. As for reading on the subject, she says she's "added 120 books to my collection. I also plan to take some basic German, since most of the best books seem to be in that language."