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Event: The Great Lady Decorators at the Los Angeles Antiques Show

April 20, 2010 |  6:14 am

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Unless you're seriously loaded, the 15th annual Los Angeles Antiques Show, running from April 22 to 25 at the Barker Hangar in Santa Monica, isn't really a buyers market. But with more than 60 exhibitors from around the corner in Los Angeles, throughout the country and across the pond in England, it's a good way to explore emerging trends in antiques and collectibles and to discover which 20th century furniture designers are popular. There is also plenty of design inspiration to be found in the way the dealers decorate their booths. 

The show also features a lecture series that includes a panel discussion on Friday, April 23, titled "Antiques in the 21st Century: What's Hot, What's Tired and What's Totally Wrong." The following day at 11:30 a.m., Adam Lewis, author of volumes on such historic designers as Albert Hadley and Tiffany design director Van Day Truex, will give what he calls "an illustrated tour" through his latest Rizzoli book, "The Great Lady Decorators: The Women Who Defined Interior Design, 1870-1955." 

Among the more recognizable names Lewis profiles: Frances Elkins, Dorothy Draper and the flamboyant Elsie de Wolfe, mentor to Hollywood decorator Tony Duquette. De Wolfe's theatrical style can be seen in the Manhattan apartment, above, that she designed in the 1930s for former silent film star Hope Hampton. (Note the mirror shaped like an ionic column to the far left and the zebra carpeting on the stairs.)

Picture 4Elkins, who created the Loop chair, a design so iconic it has been interpreted as an outdoor seat, is the only California designer in the book. She created this elegant interior, right, for screen tough guy Edward G. Robinson. 

Before the show, Lewis gave L.A. at Home its own question-and-answer session:

Is that  table at the far left of the photo Edward G. Robinson's wine barrel?

Actually it's an English wine cooler that Frances Elkins put on legs and turned into a table. This room was done in the 1950s and is a mix of 18th century English antiques with upholstered pieces that were more modern and pared-down.

I presume they were all custom made?

We didn't have Crate & Barrel ready-made sofas back then. They were handmade with down cushions and fine fabrics--as luxurious as you can get. 

More after the jump.

How did Elsie De Wolfe, who is often called the first professional interior decorator, rise to prominence?

She was a stage actress but not a very good one, but she insisted on doing her own wardrobe and wore all the latest fashions from Paris. So everyone went to see her shows just to see what she was wearing. She was also a lesbian and in a relationship with Elisabeth Marbury, an important theatrical agent. They entertained many important people in their home, which Elsie had decorated, and that led to a job decorating the Colony Club on Madison Avenue. And Elisabeth, being a very shrewd agent, told her "Elsie, you have found your metier."

Why are the female designers in your book called Lady Decorators?

All of these women came from privileged backgrounds. They lived in the upper echelon of society. Some of them may have fallen on hard times and needed to work, but they all pursued their passion for beautiful interiors and gracious living. They were ladies. To them the word woman would've been used in terms like "washerwoman" or "charwoman." If you had called them a woman, they'd have said, "Young man, I am a lady!"

Was it really so formal?

Oh, yes. They may have been working women, but they kept their social position. In their time, decorating was not about who you were but who you wanted to be. Back then, people wanted rooms that looked English or French. No one was interested in anything modern. There are many people who believe that Elsie De Wolfe was responsible for holding back design. The only decorator who was vaguely interested in modern design was Frances Elkins.

Picture 3What about Dorothy Draper, who is beloved by fans of Hollywood Regency?

Dorothy Draper was interested in modern conveniences, but most of her work was actually for businesses, not homes. She is the only commercial designer of the group. In the book I show one of her residential interiors [right] which has Chinese Chippendale beds. She was also known for neo-Baroque elements in her designs.

The book covers the years 1870-1955. Why stop there?

In the early years, there was no formal training for decorating. It was a woman's profession and to do it well you had to have grown up surrounded by and seeing beautiful things. By the end of World War II, the profession had opened up and men who had been in the service could study art and design on the G.I. bill. And by 1955, there were many men who had become prominent in the field. One of them, Billy Baldwin, is the subject of my next book.

--David A. Keeps

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Photo credits from top: Edward G. Robinson living room, courtesy of Katherine E. Boyd.  Elsie de Wolfe apartment, The New York Historical Society, Mattie E. Hewett Collection. Dorothy Draper bedroom courtesy of Dorothy Draper Inc. and Carleton Vaney