Curator Hutton Wilkinson has these words of caution to anyone contemplating a tour of the latest exhibit at the Decorative Arts Study Center in San Juan Capistrano:
"It isn't for everyone," he says, ushering a visitor past a whimsical console and mirror made of antlers and seashells by California artist Tony Duquette. "It's not Crate & Barrel, (the housewares store in South Coast Plaza). It's unusual, special."
And so it is.
In presenting a retrospective look at the designers, decorators and arbiters of taste who influenced 20th Century interiors, the center has assembled original furniture and memorabilia from 12 leading "taste makers"--each of whom bucked contemporary trends and altered the course of home decorating.
"Decorative Arts of the 20th Century: Master Decorators," on view through May 11, shows through a series of design vignettes the progression of interior design from Elsie de Wolfe at the turn of the century to Michael Taylor in the '70s and '80s.
Some of these designers' innovations have become so entrenched in modern decors they can't possibly have the same impact on viewers that they had when first introduced.
"Some things won't knock your socks off," admits Wilkinson, a Los Angeles-based interior designer who serves on the board of the Elsie de Wolfe Foundation, the exhibit's largest donor.
One takes for granted, for example, the use of natural materials in the interiors by the late Michael Taylor, who, Wilkinson says, "invented the California look for the '80s." The center re-created one of Taylor's design displays for the exhibit--leather Mexican chairs painted white and a mirror with a shell-encrusted frame. It's a style that has been endlessly --and often poorly--imitated.
Other pieces, however, are still fresh and captivating, such as the secretary desk designed for De Wolfe by Duquette in 1941. The desk features carved plaster leaves, figures and ornaments painted in a black and green lacquer.
"This is a piece of jewelry," Wilkinson says. "It's exemplary of a one-of-a-kind decoration."
By showing such pieces, the center hopes to inspire visitors to seek out their own unusual creations.
"We're trying to influence the viewer to go home and create individual interiors as opposed to going to a showroom and buying mass-produced stuff which anyone can get," Wilkinson says. "We want the average Joe to come away with an expanded awareness, to realize they can take seashells and antlers and come away with something beautiful."
One does not have to be rich to defy what Wilkinson calls "the showroom mentality." Taylor, after all, achieved his look with inexpensive Mexican furniture and seashells.
"Anyone with a glue gun could do it," Wilkinson says.
The center is not the place to make mental notes of the arrangements, then rush home and try to reproduce them in the living room. Instead, Wilkinson hopes to encourage visitors to go home and follow their own creative instincts, just as these taste makers did.
"Call it the Tao of decoration. It has to just come to you. Take the path of least resistance."
While their personal styles differed greatly, each of the featured designers broke away from traditional decors to follow their own instincts.
Wilkinson credits De Wolfe with inventing the profession of interior design and influencing an army of imitators.
"Her friends wanted to copy her," he says. So she helped them coordinate their interiors.
"She threw out the old, dark and plush Victorian interiors," he says. "She brought in trellis work and used it on the inside of the house. She used lightweight, small scale furniture.
"Elsie used to say, 'I believe in optimism and a lot of white paint.' "
To illustrate De Wolfe's contributions, the exhibit features new paintings of her early 1900s interiors by Julian La Trobe. La Trobe's paintings capture her light, airy rooms better than any black and white photograph.
Elsewhere in the exhibit, over-sized photographs help illustrate a designer's style in a way that a few pieces of furniture cannot.
English designer Syrie Maugham was known for her all-white rooms. A photographic blow-up of her London drawing room taken in 1930 best shows Maugham's white-on-white decors, with its white rug, wall of mirrors and white satin sofas. Later she adopted more colorful schemes.
She is represented in the exhibit by a ruby velvet sofa, still in its original upholstery, that she created for actress and comedienne Ina Claire. Maugham liked to say "a sofa should never look like a sofa but should look like a pile of rich stuffs and carpets piled high on the prow of a pirate's ship."
The New York studio apartment of Billy Baldwin, a portion of which has been re-created for the exhibit, perhaps looks the most "homey" to visitors. The vignette has two armless slipper chairs upholstered in a natural linen, a Chinese folding screen and a table draped in a neutral taupe fabric.