Candace Wheeler: Pioneer American Designer

Oct. 24, 2001 at 1:48 PM
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NEW YORK, Oct. 24 (UPI) -- Interior decorating was a sideline of upholsterers and drapers in the 19th century until a small band of pioneering men and women made it a profession that flourished in the 20th century and is a virtually an industry today.

One of these women was Candace Wheeler, a designer of decorative textiles and domestic interiors whose book, "Principles of Home Decoration," was the first to advise "everyday man and woman," in the words of a New York Times reviewer, on "how a humble dwelling place can be turned into an artistically attractive abode."

Wheeler's book was published in 1903, just six years after novelist Edith Wharton and Boston decorator Ogden Codman, Jr., teamed to publish "The Decoration of Houses," the first popular work in the field of interior design. Wharton and Codman, however, took the palaces of France and the stately homes of England as their inspiration for decorating the homes of the wealthy.

The daughter of a farm family in upstate New York, Wheeler was born in 1827 and lived into the Jazz Age, dying in 1923. She was lucky in her marriage to Thomas Wheeler, a New York City businessman of considerable sophistication with important friends in the art world. When a middle-aged Candace said she wanted to start a decorating business with Louis Comfort Tiffany in 1879, her husband encouraged her.

"He says it keeps me busy and makes up to me for not voting," wrote Wheeler, who was active in the women's rights movement and devoted the rest of her long life to educating young women for careers in the field of applied arts.

Wheeler is not as well known as some of her successors, such as Elsie de Wolfe, Dorothy Draper, Rose Cumming, and Sister Parish (who helped Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis redecorate the White House), and has never had the accolade of a museum show until now. The Metropolitan Museum has mounted a major retrospective including 105 works titled "Candace Wheeler: The Art and Enterprise of American Design, 1875-1900," to run through Jan. 6.

The decorator actually got into the business in 1877, when, inspired by embroideries made by London's Royal School of Art Needlework she had seen at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, she founded the New York Society of Decorative Art, long since defunct. The next year she founded the New York Exchange for Women's Work, which is still very much active.

Some of Wheeler's early prize-winning embroideries are on display, including a set of door curtains known at portieres made of contrasting colored panels of cotton and wool with painted and embroidered orange lilies. Named "Consider the Lilies of the Field," the panels were the first large-scaled textiles she designed and led her to her partnership with Tiffany in Tiffany & Wheeler Inc.

This soon grew into Louis C. Tiffany & Company, with Wheeler heading the textiles department until she split and went into business for herself by founding a firm called Associated Artists in 1883. Among the commissions she worked on in these years were the still-used Veterans' Room at the New York Seventh Regiment Armory and the Manhattan homes of Cornelius Vanderbilt II and pharmaceutical tycoon George Kemp and Mark Twain's home in Hartford, Conn.

It was in these years that Wheeler began to work with the Cheney Brothers silk mills in South Manchester, Conn., which turned out fabrics designed by her and her associates for many years. Between the years 1884 and 1894, Cheney turned out more than 500 designs and silks and cottons for Associated Artists that were sold throughout the United States at all levels of the market.

Many examples of these glorious fabrics are on display, including rich silk velveteens with swirling daffodil and trumpet vine designs, warp-printed "shadow silks" with water lily imagery in shimmering hues. But ordinary cotton cloth got glamorous treatment, too, such as the discharge-printed denims with Japanese motifs such as fish in bubbling water. Other fabrics used were linens and metallic blends.

Wheeler's women workers were adept with their needles, appliquéing velvet flowers to cloth of gold and creating beadwork dragonflies to attach to irises embroidered in silk floss, examples of which are on view. Some of the women responsible for the more elaborate designs became well-known in their own right -- Wheeler's daughter Dora, Ida Clark, Caroline Townsend, and Rosina Emmet, who had studied with painter William Merritt Chase.

Chase's portrait of Dora Wheeler in a vibrant blue dress is one of the many exhibits that show intertwining relationships in the New York art world of that distant era. Dora was noted for her large-scale embroidery designs, known as needlewoven tapestries, one of which depicting the Greek heroine Penelope unraveling the fabric on her loom by lamplight was exhibited at the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition.

Candace Wheeler was appointed interior decorator of the Women's Building at that exposition and a settee she designed for it in the emerging Arts and Crafts style is on display, the only piece of furniture designed by her that is known to have survived. There are many photographs of Wheeler's interiors for the building, as there are of her home decorating projects throughout the Metropolitan show.

It concludes with a gallery devoted to Wheeler's later life in Onteora, N. Y., an artists' colony she founded in the Catskill Mountains. She was a prolific writer of books and articles on decorating and textile arts, as well as fiction, examples of which are on display along with paintings, drawings, and photographs of Onteora.

A highlight of this section is an affectionate pastel portrait of Wheeler at 83 drawn by her daughter Dora, showing a charming white-haired lady in a lace cap and fichu and a pink shawl. The blue eyes are still bright with the determination that led to a career that improved the lives of hundreds of women workers before Wheeler closed business here Keith Windschuttle in 1907. She published her last book, "Embroidery in America," in 1921.

The Metropolitan is offering a complimentary exhibition "Women China Decorators" featuring some 40 works in American art pottery and studio pottery style that flourished from the late 1970s to the early 1900s, the same era in which Wheeler was active. This show will run through April 14.

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