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Her way with homes set standard

"Frances Elkins: Interior Design" Stephen M. Salny W.W. Norton & Co.: $65

January 05, 2006|Nancy Yoshihara

Horrors of horrors -- peach corduroy upholstery on a sofa and armchairs sitting amid Chippendale furniture, Queen Anne mirrors, Ming screens and modern lamps. This combination in a Pebble Beach home was considered "shocking" in 1926, but the eclectic trademark style of interior decorator Frances Elkins has profoundly influenced home aesthetics ever since.

"During the five decades since Frances Elkins's death, she has been fittingly revered as one of the 20th Century's most legendary decorators. Through her great taste and innate ability, she revolutionized the field of interior decorator," writes author Salny.

Elkins, who died in 1953, initially worked with her older brother, David Adler, a renowned Chicago architect who was partial to classical and traditional looks. She brought unexpected splashes of color and avant-garde touches, thanks to her friendships and collaborations with French interior decorator and furniture designer Jean-Michel Frank, Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti and other European Modernists. For herself, she transformed a dilapidated 1830s adobe in Monterey, Calif., into Casa Amesti, which became her professional calling for her talent and a showplace in Northern California.

This book, said to be first devoted entirely to Elkins, provides a solid overview of her life and work and is packed with color and black-and-white photos. She mixed styles, the old and the new, and the inexpensive with the expensive. She had a keen eye for design. She was the first to use Frank's design for a table that became known as the Parsons table, and she was the first decorator to commission Tony Duquette's antler-based console.

The highly sought Elkins could pick and choose clients, and they were eager to keep their revered decorator happy. Salny writes that "when Elkins, who had her own key to every client's house, would appear unannounced and find things out of place or in need of redecoration, she just made the alterations -- sometimes without consulting the owner."

How's that for decorator power? Any design devotee would enjoy this book.

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