The House in Good Taste: Proof of Concept

The House in Good Taste: Proof of Concept

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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. This is our second episode focused on Elsie de Wolfe’s book, The House in Good Taste. Today, we’re looking at her chapters called The Little House of Many Mirrors, The Treatment of Walls and The Effective use of Color. 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. You’ll remember from last week, I’m going to be crediting both Elsie de Wolf and her ghost writer Ruby Ross Wood as we go.

I think in some sense all designers can see themselves in Elsie de Wolfe. This feels especially true in the chapter we are starting with today, which is all about proof of concept. She’s moved out of her first house near Manhattan’s Gramercy Park. She’s learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t and now she’s ready to really showcase her ideas.

Showcasing your ideas is hard and expensive work. It’s tough to know if you even have anything worth sharing. But that didn’t seem to have stopped Elsie. She shared little ideas with us. Like I think I mentioned last week, we have photos of her first dining room when she moved in, then when she’d made a few small changes, and then when it had been completely transformed. She shared the progression of her ideas from not-so-great, to pretty nice, to, “let me show you how I can turn this sow’s ear into a silk purse!” And I hope all our listeners can achieve such exciting things in their careers. Elsie’s house in uptown at 123 E 55th wasn’t just a nice place, it was a demonstration to everyone, that a common, ugly type of house could be made wonderful. I’d love to hear from a designer doing the same with a run-of-the-mill suburban house whose front façade is 90% garage. I’m sure Elsie would have figured out an elegant way to park 3 cars on a 50-foot-wide lot and still have something resembling a good house.

But that problem was a little before her time, and the type Elsie was faced with fixing was the classic New York row house. Pretty much all residential New York lots are either 20 or 25 feet wide by 100 feet deep. That means, with wall thicknesses, the typical row house interior could be as narrow as 18 feet and is maybe 60ish feet deep with a 40 - foot rear yard. Perhaps the most iconic element of a 19th century NYC rowhouse its high front stoop. The popular and I think accurate theory for the stoop itself is that houses in the Netherlands had a stoop to keep constant flooding from destroying the interior. New York was a Dutch settlement and so the architectural idea was transported. But, New York didn’t flood often and still, by the time Elsie de Wolf was around, its houses’ stoops had grown several times higher than those in the Netherlands. No longer a couple of gentle steps, the stoop rose a full story from the sidewalk to the entry hall and main formal rooms of a house. There are a lot of theories for this growth. The high stoop lifted the main rooms above the level of sight for people passing by and it also allowed another door to be placed at the street so servants could come and go, accessing the ground level kitchen without disturbing the important rooms upstairs. Whatever the reason for its huge size, the stoop-turned-stair was a project to climb. Not only that, but it dictated that the front door of a row house be to one side, rather than in the center of façade, to allow room for a proper if small entry with access to the interior stairs and a nice, also small room facing the street.

            It may have been pretty once, but the exterior stair had grown ridiculous, and Elsie knew she could fix it.  Not to mention, with 18-ish feet of interior width dedicated to an entry and a parlor, that meant space of maybe 5’ for the entry and 13’ for the adjacent room. That wasn’t ideal, but she could fix that too. Now, here I have to say I’m a little confused and an Elsie de Wolfe expert could likely help me out. Either she did not live at the house we are about to look at very long, she says it is somewhere other than it actually was, or she is talking about two houses as if they were one. In any case, the stoop problem is solved in the same way at both locations and for at least one of the possibly two houses Elsie is talking about, she hired our old friend Ogden Codman to help her with the architecture. That one is at 131 East 71st street. While the one at 55th is long long gone, the 71st street house still stands – just some information in the event you’re a stalker like me.  Elsie removed the whole stoop, and instead of making guests hike up to her front door, she had them step down into a little forecourt where the stairs had been. Now, since front door no longer entered at the important level of the house, it could be put in the center of the façade and open into nice big entry hall. From the entry, guests could move toward the stairs which were more in the center of the floor plan than they had been, allowing much more spacious main rooms upstairs. Instead of having the typical little parlor room, that was right off the entry hall, she had one that was more like 17 x 22’, with three front facing windows instead of just two. If you’ve ever laid out a room, you know how precious that extra 4 or 5 feet she grabbed is to making a really nice seating arrangement.

In making the simple changes, Elsie turned something very every day into something grand and theatrical, but also quite a bit more functional than it had been before. And after she did it, everyone wanted their stoop removed.

As in The Decoration of Houses, you might find it weird how much time Elsie is spending telling you about the alterations she made to the floor plan of her house. There’s been almost no mention of furniture at all. In fact a lot of her descriptions end with, “no other furniture is needed.”

In her entry hall for example, Elsie has only a writing desk, which she says must be a staple in every organized house, since someone may come to the door and need to take a note, If everyone goes running looking for paper and a pencil, she takes this as  sign of disorganization throughout the rest of the house? Apart from the writing desk, there are very plain curtains, and a porter’s chair, which if you don’t know is one of those chairs with a roof on it that were so popularly recreated at Restoration Hardware a decade ago, and which were originally designed to keep a servant warm as he or she waited by the front door to let guests in and out.  The main event in Elsie’s entry was a mirror backed niche containing a little bubbling fountain and a black and white marble floor that would become her signature. The point is that if it wasn’t architectural, it was functional.


Now let’s take a look at Elsie and Ruby’s chapter titled The treatment of walls. We hardly discussed mirrors as we talked about Elsie’s little house of mirrors just now, and that’s because really, it seems weird to me that they’re not mentioned everywhere in this chapter instead. If there’s a designer who relied more heavily on the effect of mirrors to achieve more space, I’m not sure who it is. Maybe Syrie Maugham, but even she’d be given a run for her money. Anyway, let’s talk about what Elsie and Ruby suggest for the wall treatment and then let’s talk about everywhere it’s possible to put a mirror.

Here, the advice starts to diverge pretty radically from Edith and Ogden’s back in The Decoration of Houses. No longer are we talking about the 5 orders and how they may present themselves on a wall plane. Not overtly anyway. This is a lot less heady and a lot more practical. A designer who cannot design to solve both practical and aesthetic problems at once is not worth Elsie and Ruby’s time. Their discussion of walls begins with what strikes me as a strange assumption: that your floors and your ceiling are finished. I think the assumption is made so they can say something about what those surfaces should be like without launching separate chapters for them, as they tend to like the plainer options for both. Have, simple floors stained or polished to a warm glow. And, while there are hundreds of beautiful ceilings all over the world, if yours is a simple house, don’t look to them for inspiration because elaborate ceilings demand something of the rooms beneath them. Elsie and Ruby like ceilings painted cream or tan or warm grey. If there are any beams, they like them wrapped in plaster or stained, as long as they actually appear structural and are not evidently fake.

Once you’ve ensured the horizontal surfaces are simple and clean, you can begin thinking about walls. The most beautiful in their opinion is the plainly painted wall, broken into panels by narrow moldings. They work in any setting, but unfortunately require really talented painters and plasters to execute. To interject, this is one of my own favorite wall treatments too and it looks amazing when you pay the painter with your arm and your leg and all your clients’ limbs too. And it looks like absolute garbage if you go with a budget painter. In my own house, I’ve done a lot of the painting myself and I practically have to close my eyes to enjoy any of the rooms. Get your clients the best painter they can possibly afford. Almost no other investment will go as far. If they cannot afford a great painter, then Elsie and Ruby say it’s time to look at paper and fabric.

Here’s Elsie and Ruby’s advice to their reader and I think it will be really helpful to communicate to your clients as well. Don’t pick your papers and fabrics like you pick your clothes. You may buy clothes just because you like them, but you never wear them all at once. In your home, you will see all your papers and colors and fabrics together all the time, so the criteria has to be more than just, “oh, how pretty.” Get samples of everything and take it all home and live with it for a while.  Test it all out in different light. Mull it over. Try other stuff. This is getting harder and harder to do as less and less is available to touch and feel in a store. You can order samples, but places where you can browse for a few hours and find things you might never order if you just saw a picture online are becoming almost non-existent. You have to order a sample of everything. And not just to see, but to help you think. I love how Elsie and Ruby make the fact that you’ll likely change your mind at least 12 times seem like it’s part of the art. No, not seem; it is part of the art. This mulling helps you identify new possible relationships you had not first imagined, and with each change, your ideas get stronger and stronger.  This is hard for most clients to understand. And to some extent I think you can’t include them on all the mulling. You have to mull down to maybe two or three possible routes and then bring them into the world you’re seeing. I read somewhere that Sister Parish never took a client to a store to just browse. If she brought them, she’d already been in, set aside exactly the thing she wanted them to see and went straight for that. I find that most often this mulling is the thing I’m paid to have done before I bring the client alongside for the ride. Elsie’s readers weren’t necessarily going to hire her, so they’d have to mull themselves.

This next part is something I always think I should consider more carefully, but as I started to test it against the projects I’ve done, I thought to myself, “maybe some people just intuit this and are inclined to pick the right color without too much thought.” Elsie and Ruby pretty much insist that rooms with southern exposure AKA lots of light be in cool dull tones and rooms with Northern exposure AKA no direct light are in warm, lively tones. That is much better said than I could have mustered. If I think about my own house though, I have an enormous north facing window in my living room, which I’ve painted sunshine yellow and trimmed with a very dark chocolate color called Espresso Beans. It is never sunny, but feels cozy and welcoming all the time. My kitchen and guest bedroom get southern and eastern light and are painted Benjamin Moore Baby Fawn, which is sort of a soft milky beige that goes warm white in the bright sun. Think about your own rooms – I’m guessing even if you didn’t have the words to express it, you picked well.

Wood paneled rooms are also good in northern light, and don’t need any more decoration than beautiful book bindings. One thing they say to watch out for though is that a new wood room can look too woody and something should be done to make it look a little aged. I totally agree with this. I hate going into houses where woodwork is so pristine it looks plastic. It doesn’t need to be heavily distressed, but at the very least, waxing and natural oils are a much better finish than varnish.

For patterns, Elsie and Ruby love black and white Chinese or Austrian ones and they write about an imaginary bedroom with black and white everywhere, except a pop of color in porcelain or in a colorful rug on the floor. This sounds like a scheme for 2022 to me, not one you’d expect to hear about in 1913. Just like Edith and Ogden, they say highly figured patterns are hard to work with, especially if you have other large, attention calling items, like a great rug or a pieces of art. Those want plain backgrounds. They do like mural papers as long as they’re mere dream-like suggestions of reality and stricter interpretations. Elsie and Ruby recommend mural papers for halls, which is an interesting switch from The Decoration of Houses, where the authors said there was no time to take in such decorative things. But, in a way, dream-like murals aren’t things requiring serious contemplation, so this is sort of like Edith and Ogden recommending simple, forceful art in the hall. It’s a quick impression that matters for both sets of writers. No matter whose writing, mural papers are never very good in a living room, though none of them had seen the living room of designer Suzanne Rheinstein’s New York Pied-a-terre. Go to her website and see it can be done.


Okay, now we have to talk about mirrors. As Elsie’s career progressed, no surface was deemed inappropriate for mirrors. If she called this the little house of mirrors, it is bizarre she didn’t call her California home the big house of mirrors, though maybe that would have made it sound like a penitentiary. Google “Elsie de Wolfe After All” and you’ll see what I mean. Looking at pictures of the place, which she decorated with the now famous Hollywood designer Tony Duquette you’ll see full walls of mirrors, chimney breasts and mantels clad in mirrors and mirror walls behind fireplaces. Though I love Tony Duquette, in my opinion it’s a bit much. Still, mirror walls are a great way to expand space and throw light around where you have neither of those attributes. Framed, they act as windows. Covering a whole wall, you actually rarely find yourself staring into them as furniture and art pushes them into the background. This especially true when the mirror is done in what Elsie calls “the French Fashion,” where small panes are butted against one another and held in place by little pins or rosettes. She probably describes the effect best when she talks about her stair hall on 55th street. Is a spiral stair that runs through the middle of the townhouse from top to bottom. I would guess it had a laylight that allowed natural light to flood in at the very top, but I’m not sure. I know though that it didn’t have any other natural light pouring in, so the effect of having facing walls mirrored must have expanded the light and space infinitely. If this scares you, try mirroring a kitchen backsplash as the designer Thomas O’Brien does all the time. The effect is surprisingly modern and subtle.

The Decoration of Houses does not have a chapter on color as this one does, perhaps because in that book everything presumed to be made of stone. It makes suggestions about a few appropriately light, strong colors, but doesn’t talk about the emotions of color. The chapter on color here is great fun, because not only does it talk about how various colors make us feel, but how we associate certain colors with certain types of people. We call a person colorful if they are fun and happy and alert. We call someone colorless if they are boring and unfriendly. A person with a hot temper, living in a red room may look like a cartoon villain while one who is timid may be made to look and feel powerful in the same setting. It is amazing how universally our minds conjure this sort of extreme imagery. We think and criticize from a standpoint of appreciation of color

It’s easy for a reader to sense that color is the element of design that really connects with the soul for Elsie and Ruby. And actually, I think this is true for most people. Probably the easiest thing to tease out of a client is what color they hate. It’s slightly harder to identify the ones they love, because that exposes a bit more vulnerability. The colors people favor really do seem to say something about their inner world. It is the thing people will have the most visceral reaction to when it first starts going on the walls. Like the sort of reaction, they’d have if their biggest secret was being exposed, albeit briefer assuming they’re of sane mind.  I always try to make my clients stay away until it’s all up, so we don’t end up reworking everything in the midst. It changes things, big time. Properly arranged color has, as our authors say, the power to “create an atmosphere full of life.” I think this is because it brings our insides out in a tangible way.

            Nothing is sadder to me than going to a house that is painted the same awful cold grey or dead white throughout and lit overhead with 3000 kelvin LED bulbs. Talk about a colorless life. This is not me saying an all-white or all grey interior can’t be stunningly beautiful, but this is a nuanced thing the success of which lives in one’s ability to see hue as well. Is this white of a pink hue or a yellow hue or a green hue? The word hue refers to the origin of the color we observe…White isn’t a hue, but it’s base may belong to any of the ROYGBIV colors we know and love. And this origin has a big impact on what it says. It’s not that different from the people of the United States. We are all of one big place, but all our regions have subtly different ways of speech and when we hear those variances, we often know immediately what part of the country someone is from. Sometimes, if someone has moved around a lot, these accents mix in ways that are painful, or at least surprising to the ears. Same is true of a white with a different hue. Some play beautifully together and some look hideous next to one another. Elsie and Ruby say its in our ability to discern these differences that we can make a huge impact. Especially, in our ability to discern gray half tones. A tone in color is, by definition a primary or secondary color mixed only with gray (AKA a combination of only white and black). Toned colors are generally thought to be the most sophisticated and subtle. Grasping this is the trick to creating mystery and romance and getting the light to play perfectly with your selections.

             Okay, that’s it for this week, but I wanted to give you heads up to be sure and tune in next week when The Daniel House Book Club hosts its very first guest. Our club member Heather Martin, owner and principal designer at Metta Home in Richmond, Virginia joins us to talk a little bit about her own exciting work and the two of us discuss what lessons we’ve learned in Elsie and Ruby’s chapters on Doors, Windows and Chintz, The Problem of Artificial Light and Halls and Staircases.

            I got to spend a little time getting to know Heather during my last trip to High Point. Her business is so cool. While she takes design projects in the traditional method she also designs and operates her own short term rentals and takes short term rental clients looking to make their places look and feel really special for their guest. Heather puts together the whole scheme and helps these clients keep their properties fresh year after year by stocking them with new linens, towels, pillows, comfy mattresses and all the things you expect during a great stay away from home. Her payment is a percentage of the income from the properties she’s outfitted. She’s the only designer I know whose collecting design royalties on the spaces she’s done. Even without Elsie de Wolfe’s finances, Heather’s figured out a way to prove her ideas and make them profitable. I’m so excited to talk with her on the chapter about chintz in particular as she is a designer who does not shy away from pattern!

            Until next week!

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