Did Elsie De Wolfe influence my Grandmother's style of interior design?
by Sarah E. Mitchell
I recently had the opportunity to read Elsie de Wolfe's 1913 interior design book, The House in Good Taste. I was suprised at how familiar much of her advice was; my grandmother's home exhibited many of her design suggestions! Elsie's book was published before my Grandmother Reba Beaver's birth; I never saw a copy of the book in my Grandmother's library, and do not ever recall hearing Grandmother mentioning Elsie as being any influence on her aesthetic style. However, it seems that somehow my Grandparents followed many of Elsie's dictates.
Reba and Johnny Beaver built Boxwood Hill, their home in Chatham, Virginia in the mid-1960's, but much of the furnishings and general rules of style were moved or copied from their earlier home, Sunny Hill, at Dry Fork, Virginia.
Following is an exploration of the ways that Grandmother followed (or broke) Elsie's rules.
- Elsie de Wolfe suggested having both a drawing-room (for more formal entertaining) and a living room if one had the space. Boxwood Hill had both.
- The dining room in Boxwood Hill had two corner cupboards, as suggested by Elsie de Wolfe (p. 187). She also liked light dining rooms, if the room was small; Grandmother had white plaster walls, light blue carpet (not wall-to-wall), and light blue brocade curtains.
- Grandmother had a writing desk or secretary in almost every room except the dining room and bathroom (she even had a built-in writing area in the kitchen!). Elsie made a big deal of having writing desks in every room. Grandmother didn't have a writing desk in the maid's room (unless the dressing table counts), though Elsie said that the servants needing writing desks.
- Elsie suggested using both antiques and reproductions; if you couldn't find what you were looking for, have it made by a cabinent-maker. Grandmother did exactly that.
- Elsie delighted in an abundance of lighting in a room: electric lights overhead, electric lamps, candles and candlebras, and gas lights (if one did not have access to electric). Most of Grandmother's rooms, especially the more formal areas, had a chandelier overhead, electric lamps on various pieces of furniture scattered throughout the room, candlesticks and candlebras. A couple of the informal areas had old-fashioned kerosene lamps.
- Grandmother had painted woodwork almost everywhere (always white). Elsie might have ventured into creams and greys for her woodwork.
- Elsie suggested that a lady have a dressing room, closet, bathroom, bedroom, and boudoir. Grandmother had a walk-in closet with a window, as prescribed by Elsie; a bathroom with a closet and bureau (so one could do much of the dressing in the bathroom); and a bedroom.
- Elsie wanted ladies to have very well-lit bathrooms with pleny of mirrors. Elsie had been an actress; she wanted one to examine oneself in bright light, as though one was going on stage; and to view oneself from every angle in order to make sure one's clothing, etc. looked right. Grandmother had a triple mirror in her bathroom that could be adjusted to see your top half from every angle; make-up mirrors; hand mirrors; a mirror at her dessing-table; a mirror on her chest-of-drawers in front of her jewelry case; and a full-length mirror in the hall adjoining the bathroom. (She also had similar mirrors in the upstairs guest bathroom and a full-length mirror in the upstairs hall.)
- Grandmother's bedroom had a four-post bed and a highboy (as well as the writing desk), pieces of furniture Elsie liked. Grandmother had bare wooden floors with two Oriental rugs, a look also favored by Elsie.
- Elsie de Wolfe liked painted furniture. Grandmother had painted furniture in her bathroom, the maid's bedroom, and her daughter's bedroom (however, Patricia picked her own bedroom furniture).
- Elsie liked copies (or originals) of the works of Hepplewhite, Sheraton, Chippendale, and other classic furniture makers; or recreations of American Colonial pieces. Ditto for Grandmother.
- Elsie liked floral chintzes. Grandmother used some floral fabrics, but not usually chintzes. Grandmother used brocade for the curtains in the more formal rooms; Elsie used brocade (or a similar-looking fabric) for bed-curtains.
Dining Room. Sarah E. Mitchell (me) and my mother (Patricia B. Mitchell) celebrating my 3rd birthday in 1981. The mirror is visible over my head, with partially visible matching sconces on both sides of it. Though the chandelier was on, Grandmother also had lit the candles on the table (a custom she observed whenever we ate in the dining room), and my birthday cake had three candles on top, of course!
One of the dining room's two corner cupboards can be seen on the right. The walls are white, with white woodwork; the rug is light blue (can't be seen in the photo). Light blue seems dreadfully impractical, but the rugs lasted almost forty years, even with three grandchildren often visiting and frequent bridge parties, garden parties, etc.
Drawing Room. This photo shows the light blue, light rose, and white color scheme used in the most formal room in the house (Elsie's friend Miss Marbury favored white walls with dull blue carpet, and Elsie liked to use rose-red in moderation). You also may notice the wing-back armchairs, a piece of furniture favored by Elsie, and the arrangement of the chairs and sofa for easy conversation of those seated (something Elsie suggested).
The picture was taken at a Beaver Christmas family reunion in 1991. I'm very primly kneeling on the floor at the right (wearing the light colored dress; yes, it was December -- either it was a warm day or I decided that I HAD to wear that dress, whether the temperature cooperated or not!).
Secretary. The first two photographs are of my Grandmother's secretary, the last photo is of Elsie de Wolfe's secretary. Like Elsie de Wolfe, Grandmother displayed objets d'art and photographs in and on her secretary.
Black and white photograph from Elsie de Wolfe, The House in Good Taste, The Century Company, 1913. All other photographs are Mitchell family photographs, presented courtesy Mitchells Publications.
Copyright © 2004 Sarah E. Mitchell