Curator’s Choice 2017
Spectacular 1915 Tea House at Planting Fields by Elsie de Wolfe
In 1915 Elsie de Wolfe (1865-1950), the most successful, famous and influential American interior designer of her age created the beautiful interior of the Italian Garden’s Tea House at Planting Fields for Mai Coe, wife of William R. Coe. Five years later de Wolfe was involved with the decoration of Mrs. Coe’s bedroom and bathroom-dressing room at Coe Hall, as it was being finished in 1920 by architects Walker & Gillette, but that work has been substantially altered. In fact, very little of Elsie de Wolfe’s design work survives anywhere in Europe or the U.S., which makes the Tea House extremely rare and historically important because of its trellis interior, utterly distinctive of her French eighteenth-century revival style, survives with all its original furniture and fittings. Its gorgeous murals in the French Rococo style by Everett Shinn (signed and dated 1915) glow with brilliant colors against the blue- green trellis ceiling. Additionally, the room’s furniture is exquisitely painted by Shinn with garlands of flowers, and he included a charming silhouette portrait of Mai Coe on the crest rail of one of the seat backs.
Between about 1910 and 1915 de Wolfe had hired Shinn to paint murals for several private commissions in and around New York City, but none apart from this Tea House remain intact. Surviving in the Tea House today are its six ornamental wrought iron electric light fixtures made to look like bouquets of flowers painted in naturalistic colors, all part of de Wolfe’s design. They evoke the famous Sèvres porcelain flowers made in the 1760s for Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s mistress. As a designer, de Wolfe was passionate about 18th century French Rococo and Neo-classical rooms. She owned a house in France and recreated French rooms for many of her American clients. The painted wood trellis and the use of fitted mirrors throughout the Tea House interior is a style that French designers originally made popular in fine garden rooms in the 1750s, and it has remained a staple of fine rooms since then. It was de Wolfe who brought the style to America just over one hundred years ago. Original letters, between Everett Shinn and W. R. Coe in the archives of Coe Hall, reveal that Shinn was not able to finish his flower painted furniture in time for Mrs. Coe’s July 4th garden party in 1915. Mr. Coe was particularly disappointed. Today the Tea House is a uniquely surviving masterpiece of de Wolfe’s most creative interior design. Despite its diminutive scale, it is one of Planting Fields’ great treasures.