4 Lessons We Can Learn from Elsie de Wolfe
In the early 1900's, 82% of women were confined to the home with the traditional role of wife and mother. Women breaking out of their traditional roles were met with resistance from all levels of society. Just 18% of the female population was employed outside the home - mostly as overworked and underpaid factory workers, typists, and nurses.
Enter Elsie de Wolfe: a vibrant, confident, and shrewd woman, credited with single-handedly creating the profession of interior design in 1905, at age 40! Her life was a fascinating one; anyone in the field of design would enjoy reading more about her. Although the charismatic Ms. de Wolfe is no longer with us, she most definitely left an amazing legacy behind.
Here are four important lessons any designer, architect, or creative can learn from Elsie's story:
HAVE CONFIDENCE IN YOUR VISION
Elsie had a vision for design unlike any other at the time. While the rest of the world was knee-deep in Victorian hauteur - with its dark woodwork and heavy curtains, Elsie envisioned bright and airy spaces - featuring pale paint colors, lightweight fabrics, florals, and mirrors. She was confident in her design opinion, and proved herself right! Upon seeing her style, everyone from architect Standford White to Anne Morgan (yes, J.P. Morgan's daughter) was reaching out for Elsie's decor counsel.
USE YOUR OWN HOME AS YOUR CANVAS
Before she had any real clients, Elsie treated her own home has her blank canvas. It was there that she showed off her skills, and captured the attention of society friends - and friends of friends. That got the ball rolling. A few years later, she got her big break when she was asked to decorate the rooms of New York's Colony Club, America's first women's clubhouse. Her work on that job sparked her career - not only winning her national praise in the press, but several more lucrative projects! In the years to come, Elsie continued to use her homes as her design lab - testing new ideas that she wanted to try.
KNOW YOUR WORTH
It's no secret that Elsie knew her worth and wasn't afraid to charge for it. Most notable was the work she completed for well-known (and wealthy) industrialist and art collector, Henry Frick. He hired Elsie to decorate 14 rooms in his newly built Upper East Side mansion, and agreed to pay her a percentage of the cost of each and every thing she sourced for the project: 5% of any item purchased below or up to $25,000, 3% of any item between $25,000 and $50,000, and 2.5% of any item exceeding $50,000. To give you an idea of the scope of work she did for Frick, just one bill, dated January 25, 1915, came to $91,351.83 (source). Keep in mind that $91,000 in 1915 was equivalent to about $2.2 million in 2018! Their compensation agreement not only made her very wealthy, but also became a standard in the industry.
Elsie knew how to get noticed, and might even be one of the earliest examples of branding in the field of design. She created a memorable logo for herself, a small wolf with a flower in its paw, and put it on business cards to distribute to friends and acquaintances. It quickly became her trademark, and the rest, as they say, is history.