Queering the Interior: London, New York, Sydney, 1882–1929
The recent display in the Caroline Simpson Library highlighted the design practices of five figures from queer history: Irish playwright and poet Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), American actress and interior designer Elsie de Wolfe (1859–1950), and Australian artists Eirene Mort (1879–1977), Roy de Maistre (1894–1968) and Adrian Feint (1894–1971).
Oscar Wilde’s American literary agent, Elisabeth Marbury, was Elsie de Wolfe’s partner, and the trio developed an enduring friendship. Eirene Mort, along with her partner, Nora Weston, lauded the theories of the Arts and Crafts Movement, advocating for traditional craftsmanship in all they did. Roy de Maistre and Adrian Feint helped bring the ideas of modernism to 1920s Australia.
This diverse group of people are connected not only by a lived expression of queerness but also through their shared belief that one’s individuality, and even essence, could be conveyed through design. While each figure had a significant impact on interior design across Britain, America and Australia, queerness as a lens through which to study design history is yet to be fully explored.
Queering the Interior: Oscar Wilde and Elsie De Wolfe
Oscar Wilde and Elsie de Wolfe were interior decoration trendsetters in London and New York in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although their individual styles differed, the pair articulated a passion for ‘beautiful’ design and, perhaps surprisingly, shared a dislike of the ornate wallpapers designed by William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Oscar Wilde is famous for his plays and poetry, his wit and an illicit love affair with Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas. His career in interior decoration is less well known. In 1882, Wilde toured the United States, presenting more than 140 lectures. He championed the aesthetic movement, which countered the mass production of the industrial revolution and Victorian era and valued beauty in and of itself. It drew inspiration from Japanese art and craftsmanship, Renaissance painting and other rich, eclectic sources. Wilde’s lectures, along with home decoration publications such as Clarence Cook’s The house beautiful, helped popularise the movement among the middle classes.
A self-professed authority on questions of taste, Elsie de Wolfe established the profession of ‘interior decorator’ in the United States in the early 20th century. She turned her own lifestyle into an attractive commodity for wealthy Americans looking to cement their social status through the creation of fashionable interiors. Inspired by 18th-century French interiors, de Wolfe’s light and airy rooms filled with mirrors and painted furniture swept away the clutter and drabness of the Victorian era. Her popular book The house in good taste promoted her ideas to a wide audience of aspiring middleclass women – whether they could afford her services or not.
Eirene Mort was a leading figure in Australian arts and crafts in the early 20th century. Trained in the Arts and Crafts style in England, she excelled in design, drawing, embroidery, etching and ceramics. In 1907, The Sydney Mail published a series of articles by Mort that reflected on her approach to interior design. Australian flora and fauna design motifs, rooms filled with handmade furniture and decoration, and reflecting one’s personal identity and taste through interior decoration were common themes in her work. Mort lived with and worked alongside her partner, woodworker Nora Weston (1880–1965), for more than 50 years.
… they can feel they are their own rooms, and express their own lives and tastes and weaknesses!
(Eirene Mort, The Sydney Mail, 1907)
The Burdekin House exhibition
In 1929, Burdekin House, at the time one of Sydney’s surviving colonial homes, hosted an unusual and pioneering exhibition. It contrasted antique furniture, displayed on the ground floor, with a series of bold, modernist interiors upstairs. Designed by leading contemporary art figures – including Roy de Maistre, who managed the entire exhibition, and Adrian Feint – six distinct rooms paid homage to the modern way of living. Simple, streamlined and colourful, the stage-like spaces presented a ‘revolt against the drab fussiness, the nick-nacks, the hangings, and the bric-a-brac of the Victorian era …’ (The Land, 1929). Furnished mainly with pieces from Sydney retailer Beard Watson Ltd, each room suggested the possibilities – and benefits – of modern interior design in Australia.
… nothing as complete as these rooms, illustrative of modern tendencies has been seen before in Sydney …
(The Sydney Morning Herald, 1929)
An exploration of the creative worlds and design practices of figures from queer history
Film produced by Katie Furlonger, Digital Content Coordinator, Museums of History NSW.
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