Sometimes, when I am looking for a new book to read, I will head over to Project Gutenberg's author index, pick a letter at random, and browse. Sometimes I will run across an author I've been meaning to read, or a lesser known work by an author I enjoy.
Not too long ago I was browsing the letter W when I came across The House in Good Taste by Elsie de Wolfe. I was excited to find this work by the woman credited as the first interior designer in the U.S., and even more excited when I discovered that some of the ebook formats included the original book's black-and-white photos.
I loaded the Project Gutenberg ebook onto my Sony PRS-505 Reader and settled down to read. My expectation was that the prose would be whimsical and eccentric and I was not disappointed on that count. De Wolfe's 1913 text begins with a passionate endorsement of a burgeoning decorating spirit in the U.S.:
I know of nothing more significant than the awakening of men and women throughout our country to the desire to improve their houses. Call it what you will--awakening, development, American Renaissance--it is a most startling and promising condition of affairs.
I loved trying to imagine this time in history that de Wolfe was describing, when a wave of interest in interior design washes across America, bringing optimism to the land.
The House in Good Taste was intended to be used as a practical handbook, with its guiding principles being "Suitability, Simplicity and Proportion." De Wolfe uses her own grand living quarters as decorating examples throughout the book and frequently mentions--without explanation--a Miss Marbury, who shares her household. De Wolfe's biographers and society gossip columnists of the period identified Miss Elizabeth Marbury as the decorator's lesbian lover.
I often found myself persuaded by de Wolfe's strongly worded opinions on interior design. When I started the book, I held no real opinion about--to use one example--brass beds. But after reading de Wolfe's scathing remarks about brass bed frames ("For the last ten years there has been a dreadful epidemic of brass beds") I've reconsidered the matter and I agree with her they are, to borrow her words, vulgar and ostentatious.
But de Wolfe's dislike for brass beds is as nothing compared to her feelings for nineteenth century black walnut furniture, which she assures "will never be coveted by collectors, unless someone should build a museum for the freakish objects of home furnishing" and "will never be surpassed in ugliness and bad taste." After reading that, I had to go look up mid-Victorian black walnut furniture on eBay. It is incredibly hideous.
When it comes to thinks she likes, de Wolfe is big on the use of trellis work indoors. There is an entire chapter devoted to the subject, called "The Art of Trelliage." The photo reproduced below, taken from the ebook, shows de Wolfe's own "judicious use of trellis." It is an interior motif for which she became famous.