The House in Good Taste: America's First Decorator

The House in Good Taste: America's First Decorator

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_________________________ Transcript _________________________

Hey fellow interior designers and design lovers. Welcome to The Daniel House Book Club. Together, we’re reading and discussing the 8 books every interior designer and design enthusiast should have read according to Architectural Digest. For a complete reading schedule, please visit our website, and click on the club bulletin tab. While you’re there, consider becoming a member. Daniel House Club is a powerful tool that helps interior designers do more of what they love and less of what they hate. I’m the club’s Chief Creative officer, Peter Spalding and I’ll be your host. Today, we leave Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman’s 1897 classic The Decoration of Houses behind and travel 16 years forward, to Elsie de Wolfe’s The House in Good Taste. In a lot of ways, this book feels similar to the one we’ve just finished. It talks about the importance of simplicity in decoration, about proportion and architecture and suitability. But in other ways, it’s a totally new beast.

In the last episode, I said Elsie de Wolfe was the Joanna Gaines of her day, except way chicer, but that may have minimized her gigantic shoes – it might be better to call her the Kim Kardashian of her day. In de Wolfe, we see our modern concept of celebrity. She is often called America’s first decorator, but she was so much more. She was a stage actress, a social connector, a publicity genius (I think), and a not-too closeted lesbian, which didn’t seem to bother many. In 1935, Paris critics named de Wolfe “the best dressed woman in the world,” as she did not cater to trends but wore what suited her best.

The book we are exploring now is as much about its author as it is about home. Which is weird, since we have to credit a ghost writer here, where we did not in The Decoration of Houses. That book was presented as the bible, an unerring authority gifted to the world by a seemingly omnipotent being, to be applied to all houses throughout time. Here, we have the impression of Elsie just puttering away at home, trying things out with her equivalent of a glue gun and scotch tape. This is a book that oscillates between the real and an idealized world where, as the critic Penny Sparke points out, its reader’s desire for a new interior and the elevated social status that came with it was as significant as the actual realization of one. I have not read Penny’s article in full, so I can’t comment on her exact meaning here, but to me this suggests the reader would think themselves elevated by the mere desire to have a nice house, and would not require its actual construction to maintain this sense of importance. I think it may be fairer to say the reader would feel elevated by the fact they possessed the knowledge of how to execute a new house well, if the opportunity came to them. But, before we go down a rabbit hole, let me say that my primary purpose is to expose us all to what is actually written on the pages of these books, and to leave a lot of the discovery of context and criticism to all of you.

But, we can’t really dive in until we talk about the ghost writer of The House in Good Taste, Ruby Ross Wood. Wood was a little younger than Elsie de Wolfe, and quite a bit less famous. Though not poor by any stretch, she was not of the same stratosphere as some of the other people we’ve been talking about so far. She would become a very important American decorator, but before this book was published in 1913, she was a journalist who wrote columns in both the Ladies’ Home Journal and The Delineator under the name of Elsie de Wolfe. The articles she wrote in these publications were used to generate much of the content we are about to explore. To what extent Ruby and Elsie were of exactly the same mind, I’d require someone with more knowledge to say. It’s worth knowing that shortly after the book came out, Ruby founded her own design firm called Modernist Studios, whose Viennese persuasion was too ahead of its time for New York. She then went on to run the decorating division of Wanamaker’s Department Store. As a quick aside, imagine walking into Nordstrom today and asking to have your home decorated. The department store also had an antiques division, with which she also worked closely. What resources she must have had at her fingertips. Eventually, Ruby left Wanamaker’s to found a successful firm of her own, the most notable employee of which was Billy Baldwin.

            Okay, with all this backstory in mind, let’s embark. You’ll notice right away there is a lot about the home being the woman’s domain, and her husband, though he lives there, always being invited into her world. While that’s all very romantic, it’s challenging for our contemporary minds. We’re presented with an old ideal of life, which by the way some people still live very happily and that’s fine and others don’t and that is fine too. I’d like to add that I have almost never worked for a husband-and-wife duo where the man cared any less than the woman about how it all turned out. This is the sort of thinking that led to the idea that a man should feel embarrassed to even notice if something is nice or not and that a woman should do little else. What a waste. Man, woman, whoever, either you see and cultivate beauty or you don’t.

            Men and woman aside, what’s terrific about this introduction is that it meets the reader right where they are. Titled “Development of The Modern House,” Rather than launching into a set of rules or even an historical tale, it tells you how you will go from dreaming about your ideal house, to making it happen. It really doesn’t matter who you are, anything is possible; that’s the tone anyway.


“There never was a house so bad that it couldn’t be made over into something worthwhile,” page four proclaims to the readers in their dumpy little quarters as well as their over-wrought baronial castles. And,“we will be so much happier when we learn to transform the things we love into a semblance of our ideal.” That’s great, the reader says to themselves, I have a partner in this and she’ll help me. Meanwhile, perhaps Elsie’s ‘we’ refers to a whole nation.

            Today, we could stop at this sweeping proclamation of transformation and reduce this to a self-help book, but that would be a mistake because Elsie and Ruby are not offering a quick fix. This is going to require hard work on the part of their reader. They have a duty to teach themselves “the lessons of sincerity and common sense, and suitability…of what is meant by color and form and line, harmony, contrast and proportion.” Through these lessons, the reader’s vague ideas will clear into definite inspiration, and they will be ready to talk about ideals. Only when this happens, have they become fit to approach the full art of home-making.

            I’ve presented this in a little bit of a patronizing way, and it’s not because I don’t take it seriously. It’s because I try to imagine myself saying all this to my own client and them looking at me like, “you half-wit, I just want a new kitchen and I want it done as soon as possible.” And in saying, yes, I’ll have the drawings over for your approval by next Thursday, I have done us all a disservice. We’ll create something very nice and in fifteen years when there’s a new type of counter available or some other trend at play, it will all get ripped out and replaced because I didn’t take the time, no, I didn’t have the confidence, to take them on a journey that opened their eyes and helped them discern. They will unknowingly start from scratch and throw all our work into the ocean to be feasted on by sea turtles. But not Elsie de Wolfe’s readers. They will get so thoroughly sucked into the world she sees they won’t be able to avert their eyes. They will learn to express their individuality through careful, life-long discipline, and her signature black-and-white marble floor in their entrance hall.

            Okay, now the reader / client has been tasked with training their eye and it’s time for them to partner with a great architect who will help them realize their ideal. Plenty of readers won’t be hiring an architect, and will transform by smaller, equally impactful measure, but for those who are hiring, Elsie and Ruby have some good advice.

            Hire a person you could imagine being friends with. That’s very different from hiring a friend.  It’s about compatibility and I imagine they’d say the same to a designer picking a client, which they have every right to do. The process of designing and building anything is a long one. If not a marriage, it is at least a long-term relationship and you might have more conversations about money than you do with your actual spouse. To the client, pick someone who understands the kind of life you live, or want to live and will design for that life. To the designer, pick a client who lives or wants to live the sort of life you want to design for. Understand that you are in this process together and the finished result will represent both of you as a posed painting represents the subject as seen through the lens of the artist. Together, don’t conceive of this house as a series of designated rooms, but a place that expresses yourself and the life you want to have in the future. Do not try to make it Versailles, make it yours.

            So far, this chapter called “Development of the Modern House” has been all about how you and your architect are going to make your house. It would seem odd if there was no mention at all of how the contemporary idea of a house in 1913 came into existence. Here, the history is much less far-reaching than in The Decoration of Houses. It again returns to gender, saying that men designed their houses for constant parades and grand state entertaining, while women contributed smaller, cozier elements that made the house a home. It would be difficult to say our authors were wrong, but happily we in the western world are no longer constrained by the idea that all men want pomp and all women want to make a cozy little house.

            The brief history is exciting and empowering though, as it features important women going against the social grain from the 1500s onward, and establishing a set of rooms that represent herself, beginning with the Grotta of Isabella d’Este and moving on to the Marquise de Rambouillet, whose whole life is identified as having been an expression of her “awakened consciousness of beauty and reserve, of simplicity and suitability.”

            Hers, they say, is the earliest version of the modern house. With its rooms of diverse size and purpose colored with silvery-blues, with its full, very comfortable bedroom suite and its new, softly padded armchairs, Madame de Rambouillet’s was a house conceived for comfort and conversation, modern activities in a world newly associated with leisure. The general point of this quick history is that a woman, not a man, gave the world the comfort we know today.

            And the problem for the 20th century person planning their home was that since the inception of this important house, there was nothing more to be done. Their job was to not mess it all up by filling their houses with a bunch of crap as the Victorians before them had done – to not fail to see beauty in simple, commonplace things and emulate those. The task at the end of this opening chapter is for the reader to empty their tables of junk, throw out any fake art and put everything where it will actually be used and enjoyed with purpose. Together, Elsie and Ruby’s readers would all make America beautiful…for the first time. 

            As we move on to the chapter called Suitibility, Simplicity and Proportion, it’s hard not to feel we are reading The Decoration of Houses all over again. Except this time, we have a motto: suitability, simplicity, proportion; suitability, simplicity, proportion. Actually, in The Decoration of Houses I think suitability is usually “appropriateness,” but you get the drift. To begin designing, we are prompted to imagine ourselves as the person who will occupy a set of rooms everyday and ask ourselves this first question, just as we’ve heard before, “do the openings make sense where they are? Are the windows, doors and fireplaces all aligned as they should be to provide views and put furniture where it can be used?” Are all these things scaled well? These questions are more important than if any objects in the room are nice at all.

            After these things, Elsie and Ruby go right to comforts, but not the comforts you might think. They want to know if the lights will be positioned where you want them – by the fire, next to a chair or a bed, and not just right in the middle of the ceiling where they cast shadows over your head. How will the temperature be controlled? They were writing in the era of uncontrollable steam heat, so this was probably a bigger concern for them than it is for us, but still thinking about a rooms comfort based on how close or far it is from a door or window to the outside will determine where you put pieces of furniture to sit on and relax. A guest of a house should be considered and they should not be made to roast or freeze in their bedroom. There should be some way for them to control their comfort.

            Then Elsie and Ruby make this seemingly old-fashioned, but I think still pretty true statement: “people come to your home and talk about the weather, but they are looking at the furniture.” They are assessing you and your whole being through the choices you’ve made and the provisions you’ve allowed for them. Elsie and Ruby identify taste as the compass that never errs, as the highest signifier of character. It’s very reasonable to hear this and think, “geez, that’s over the top.” Then if you think about the discussion we had last week about connoisseurship, and how one’s taking in of all kinds of objects from various points in history, and the methods and cultures used to conceive them expands their ability to see and understand all sorts of perspectives, then it begins to sound a little less nuts. I’m not saying we should judge a person by their taste, and actually plenty of the best people I know have really bad taste, but great compassion or hospitality or whatever attribute is really desirable in a friend. But I think it’s fair to say taste is a good indicator of what’s going on upstairs. Not a dead giveaway as our author’s claim, but telling.

            But Peter, you sound really judgey and mean. Yes, I’m horribly mean. But seriously, let’s take as an example what Elsie and Ruby say about the people of their own time, who were so pre-occupied with reproducing and preserving furniture that vaguely represented the past that they could not just live. Today, we are so concerned that our things arrive immediately, that we cannot wait for something of good quality. Even as we stop using plastic bags and begin composting everything, we are content to buy cheap furniture that we intend to throw away in a few years’ time. How disingenuous. In the words of Elsie and Ruby, our ancestors had faith in the permanence they created – we have lost this happy confidence. And with our nervousness, they warn we fail to inspire the craftspeople of our era, who cannot create something really exceptional on the timeline proposed. If not the judgement we make of an individual, I imagine this will be the judgement history makes of our time.

            Now, if you or your client can wait, you don’t need a lot of great things – I love how they communicate this idea by saying the woman wearing fake jewels is less conspicuous than the one wearing too many real jewels at the wrong time. The job of decorating is one of reduction. Your job is to find a couple of really good, suitable objects and let the architecture of the rooms become the decoration.

            Another thing that makes The House in Good Taste a Little more fun than The Decoration of Houses is that Elsie is talking a lot about the places she has lived and how she has transformed them little by little, and includes photos of these things, rather than of the most exceptional interiors in the Western world. I think studying exceptional places is really, really, really important as the ideas found there can be distilled for simpler projects – but there’s something nice about seeing a world-famous designer showing her own simple rooms. It makes the ideas feel more actionable. The first of Elsie’s projects we get to see is the house she and her partner Elisabeth Marbury shared at 122 E. 17th St and Irving Place near Gramercy Park in New York City. It’s an 1840’s Greek revival-light row house with some sweet Victorian era embellishments from a resident that lived there before Elsie and Elisabeth. And, it’s erroneously dubbed the Washington Irving House as, possibly Elsie herself began a rumor that the famous author once lived there. The house still stands, though the interiors are long since changed.

            These are the parts where it’s difficult for me to know if we are hearing Ruby or Elsie’s voice. Possibly careful study of Ruby’s earlier columns would inform us, but whoever’s speaking, we see them move to the practical a lot more quickly than our old friends Edith and Ogden did. And truthfully, suggesting weirdly specific things, like converting a useless window seat into little bubbling fountain, or using old French prints, applied side by side at the top of a wall to form a frieze where there isn’t one. But it’s in these trials and errors that Ruby and de Wolfe hook us. This is a laboratory of ideas – they compare the process of reviving an old house to the processes of reviving a garden, which I love. Gardening is the most humbling thing I’ve ever done. You can buy a whole bunch of beautiful shrubs and visualize them forming a dense hedge, only to find them dead in a month, despite all the conditions seeming to have been fine. It’s not cheap to fail in this way – too many times and you begin to feel like a serial killer. While furniture and finishes and art objects don’t die, they can look very different than we anticipated they would all chilling together in a given space. As our clients rely on us to tell them everything will turn out beautifully, we have to have some way of knowing ourselves this will be true. Elsie knew her ideas would work because she tried them in her laboratory and she watched as her guests responded to them. I imagine there were plenty of dead shrubs before her garden really blossomed.

            Personally, I don’t like a lot of the pictures I’ve seen of the interior of the Washington Irving house when Elsie lived there, but I love hearing about what she was thinking and how she was planning for the way her life worked. I don’t want to jump ahead, but I do think the transformation of her dining room is particularly interesting, and we have photographs of the room at multiple stages of its progression from heavy Victorian monstrosity, to a much lighter, more angular French influence room that really represented where Elsie was headed as a designer. This willingness to share the progression strikes me as so 2021. Getting to watch ideas unfold is really so much more exciting than just enjoying the finished product. Join me next week as we see Elsie progress toward maturity in another of her own houses and as she and Ruby tell us their thoughts on wall treatments and the effective use of color.

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