California's Original Interior Designer

Frances Elkins, California’s first interior designer of note, was in a class by herself.

The year was 1947, and Fred Lyon, a young San Francisco photographer, had landed a big assignment for House & Garden. On the day of the shoot, he found someone there to assist him. “She was a short lady with rouge applied in little circles high on her cheekbones and a row of spit curls across her forehead,” he recalls. “In my innocence, I had no idea who she was.” The woman was Frances Elkins, and she had designed the house with architect Gardner Dailey.

Although a stranger to the photographer, Elkins was a groundbreaking interior designer whose roster of blue-chip clients dutifully followed her exacting directions. These clients—some of the most powerful people in the country—were, as Elkins’ biographer Stephen Salny says, “shaking in their boots” for fear she might drop them. She kept them in line with her daring talent and unflagging confidence. These qualities helped her create Casa Amesti, her fantastic home in Monterey.

Elkins and her brother, the famed architect David Adler, were born in Wisconsin, where their father, Isaac, owned a clothing factory. Although she had no formal training in design, she did visit her brother in Europe often between 1908 and 1911 while he studied architecture in Paris. When she and her husband, Felton Elkins, moved to California in 1918, there was nothing in her past that suggested she was capable of turning the crumbling Monterey colonial they purchased into a notable house. Before she could do anything to it, her marriage fell apart and her husband left. Her friends from nearby Pebble Beach mocked her for having spent $5,000 on the decrepit structure, and it seemed as if Elkins were set up for failure. “Her friends were appalled by the state of the house,” says Salny, author of Frances Elkins: Interior Design and The Country Houses of David Adler. “But she told them that when she and her brother got done with it, it would be a showplace. And she was right.”

 

A hallway in casa amesti highlights the Elkins style

Elkins furnished the house in a style that was revolutionary. Using a bold palette of blue, yellow and white, she deftly mixed French, English and Chinese furniture with European art and antiques. Her rooms were arranged in a style that was eclectic and casual: Traditional molding was used to adorn rustic adobe walls, and antique furniture was mixed with avant-garde works from the artisans and designers she’d met on her European sojourns. The same women who were shocked at her choice in housing were soon asking her to work on their own homes.

Elkins built a design empire that had her working on manses, hotels and private clubs from coast to coast. As her fame grew, Casa Amesti remained Elkins’ touchstone. “Before Casa Amesti, she was merely the sister of David Adler,” says Salny. Today, the home functions as a private men’s club, but many of its rooms remain exactly as Elkins left them when she died in 1953.

Fred Lyon became her photographer of choice and went on to enjoy a celebrated career himself. “On the day I met her, I was a naive young man,” Lyon says. “I didn’t understand the spit curls—I still don’t. But as I realized her talent, my perception of her changed. She was a powerful woman. She was imperious to her clients but kind to the artisans who worked for her.”

Salny believes it was sheer chutzpah and innate style that gave Elkins the ability to rise to the top. “She had great taste, and people gravitated toward it,” he says. “She refused to take guff from anybody, no matter how important they were. People respected that.”

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