This interview took place just above Beverly Hills, at Dawnridge, the historic estate where Tony Duquette, the famous Hollywood socialite and interior decorator, lived on and off from 1949 until his death in 1999. Today it’s run by Hutton Wilkinson, Duquette’s protégé and collaborator since 1972, whose own house — another masterpiece of decoration — sits next door, separated by a luxurious, almost phantasmagorical garden.
I was lucky to spend an afternoon with the enthusiastic and inexhaustible Wilkinson, who unveiled every part of the property, which he had partially redecorated. Our animated discussion benefited from his intimate knowlege of
the grounds and numerous anecdotes that brought Tony Duquette’s amazingly eclectic eccentricity back to life.
interview by ANNE DRESSEN
photography by DANIEL TRESE
ANNE DRESSEN —We first met a few months back to discuss Tony’s jewelry
for “Medusa,” a show that I’m preparing, but I didn’t expect to discover such a complex figure. Who was Tony Duquette?
HUTTON WILKINSON — He was the son of a bankrupted businessman, a young man with a fertile imagination and an enchanted vision who studied at Chouinard [Art Institute] and was a hard worker.
He was very hands-on. He quickly became a successful interior decorator and a set and costume designer. He was also a sculptor and a jeweler. Working for private clients, but also for MGM and 20th Century Fox, early on. He got an award for the original Broadway production of Camelot and also designed a jewelry collection for Tom Ford at Gucci in the 1990s, just to give you an idea of the wide span of his practice! He was born in 1914 and died in 1999.
He basically covered the whole 20th century and expired just before the millennium.
ANNE DRESSEN — He was also a serious socialite and entertainer, known
to hold a salon in his homes and to organize amazing set decorations and costumes for parties or masquerade balls.
HUTTON WILKINSON — That’s how he met Elsie de Wolfe. You know, she was the first to get remunerated for her taste, the first decorator, so to speak. She saw the decorations — amazing table-scapes — Tony made for James Pendleton and asked him to collaborate. She brought him to Venice and Paris and introduced him to future clients.
ANNE DRESSEN — Who did he work for?
HUTTON WILKINSON — His supporters were Elizabeth Arden, Norton Simon, J. Paul Getty, John and Dodie Rosekrans, Vincente Minnelli — Tony was the godfather of Liza — the Duchess of Windsor, the Vicomtesse de Noailles… His list of clients is a who’s who of Hollywood high society, with a mix of jet set and royalty of the time. They would come to him and tell him, “Amaze us!” He worked mostly in California, but also in New York, San Francisco, Honolulu, Paris, Venice, Dublin, and Salzburg. Los Angeles was really a cosmopolitan, glamorous, and sophisticated city from the ’40s up until the ’90s.
Not just the television and the movie industries, but aerospace and sportswear, not to mention the boom in postwar housing that turned the sleepy little Spanish town into a metropolis.
ANNE DRESSEN — Duquette came to live the way his clients were living?
HUTTON WILKINSON — Elsie told him: “You work for whom you see. You are working in the luxury business. You can’t live like a starving artist.”
ANNE DRESSEN — What were his main sources of inspiration?
HUTTON WILKINSON — His clients wanted to be ladies and gentlemen, aristocrats, not bourgeois. Sleeping on canopy beds, surrounded by curtains, mirrors. Tony was fascinated by Louis XIV — the Sun King — and Louis XV, the Versailles style, pre-revolutionary 18th century.
I remember Tony had a bolt of tiger silk velvet woven on 18th-century looms that were created for Marie Antoinette.
ANNE DRESSEN — The walls of Dawnridge are also covered with the paintings of his wife, Elizabeth Duquette. They remind me of Marie Laurencin’s early 20 th-century ethereal pastels, which were themselves very evocative of Watteau — elegant but less libertine.
hutton wilkinson — Beegle [Elizabeth Duquette] was a crucial yet discreet figure. She painted all her life, first for Disney, then only with and for Tony. She never had a gallery. Tony integrated her paintings in his decors. He would also make sketches for his sets and costumes on 3D metal dolls, which looked like Beegle’s figures. They were a very united and mutually supportive couple.
ANNE DRESSEN — Apart from his clients, who was in his circle?
HUTTON WILKINSON — The cultivated jet set, mainly actors and writers. Orson Welles, Aldous Huxley, Greta Garbo, Liza Minnelli, Karen Blixen, Ray Bradbury, James Coburn, Liz Taylor, as well as many eccentric forgotten stars and also powerful industrial figures. Marlon Brando lived at Dawnridge for a few years.
ANNE DRESSEN — What about the art scene?
HUTTON WILKINSON — He met and admired Dalí and also Warhol, whom he knew very well. Also Roy Lichtenstein. He owned a box by Joseph Cornell, some pieces by Leonor Fini, Botero, and Vasarely. But he did not collect much modern art apart from that.
ANNE DRESSEN — He was also a collector of curious objects.
HUTTON WILKINSON — His favorite objects were ostrich eggs, beautiful undersea shells, petrified turtles, coral branches, narwhal tusks, and all types of taxidermy.
ANNE DRESSEN — What would be the best adjective to qualify Tony’s practice?
HUTTON WILKINSON — Maximalist aesthetics. Definitely over the top, natural Baroque!
ANNE DRESSEN — If we think of the international modernist movement,
which was contemporary, Tony appears strongly antimodern. LA, like Chicago, was the host of very modernist aesthetics. Mies van der Rohe’s motto was “less is more.” More Is More is the title of one of your books on Duquette. Who actually said that?
HUTTON WILKINSON — Tony used to say this. In many ways, Tony’s personal philosophy was the opposite of functionalist design, of the idea of democratization through design. I think that maximalism will come back. I hope. We need largesse and magnificence, drama and pageantry in our lives.
ANNE DRESSEN — Some art museums have presented his work.
HUTTON WILKINSON — Yes, including the Pavillon de Marsan
[the decorative arts wing of the Louvre] in 1951, LACMA in 1952,
the Hammer Museum in 1996 when he was turning 80…
ANNE DRESSEN — Would you say he was decadent — a cynical dandy?
HUTTON WILKINSON — Oh, no. Tony was sort of old-fashioned, but progressive in his own very humanist way! He was definitely a product of Hollywood, living in a real world of fiction. Hollywood is nothing but a beautiful mirage, which invented a sort of fourth dimension,
like Alice in Wonderland!
ANNE DRESSEN — It’s like the word “antique,” which carries a very different meaning in Europe than in the US.
HUTTON WILKINSON — Yes, we also call them “collectibles.” I hate this word. I guess it means objects no more than 100 years old. America is such a young country, compared with Europe! After the war, Duquette told me that he was able to purchase stacks of paintings from the back of any Italian church for $50! And he did. We did not have flea markets in America back then.
ANNE DRESSEN — But actually, Tony’s inspiration goes beyond Europe.
He was also a sort of orientalist, with all the fantasy it carries.
HUTTON WILKINSON — Yes, he was fascinated with Thai, Balinese, Indian Mughal, and Chinese architecture and decor from the 17th and 18th centuries. He was really well traveled. He would bring back Thai pavilions, tons of exotic objects. He sort of invented the Regency Bohemian style for imaginary Indian princesses living in the Palais Bourbon…
ANNE DRESSEN — In some ways, he also foresaw the “hippie-chic” movement, didn’t he?
HUTTON WILKINSON — I call it the “rich hippie” or the “ethnic” look. He always reinvented whatever he needed from whatever he found at hand. This is what we call the “tao of decoration.” Basically, you have to follow the path of least resistance.
ANNE DRESSEN — Someone came up with the neologism “Duquettrie.” Who said this?
HUTTON WILKINSON — Sir Charles Mendl invented this word, which plays with marqueterie, to describe the great cabinet Tony designed for Elsie that stands here in Dawnridge.
ANNE DRESSEN — Here in Dawnridge, it’s impossible to focus on a single object or material. You are constantly attracted to something else — there is no center.
HUTTON WILKINSON — Yes, he believed that each room should be greater than the sum of its parts. Tony always said he had a hungry eye that he had to feed with many details, patterns, textures.
He would always work in situ and add layers over layers, objects over objects, listening to the room. He was basically creating giant mandalas to live in.
ANNE DRESSEN — Let’s speak about the garden. It looks like a jungle, full of hidden pavilions. There is also the feeling of being in some sort of subaquatic world!
HUTTON WILKINSON — Yes. He was definitely a landscape artist. He said he was creating a painting using various colors of green and bronze foliage. It has a mixture of real Asian temples and made-up ones. For some of them, he used skateboards. Sometimes plastic taken from computer components, which look like Chinese Palace snowflake screens. He also had some obelisks covered with nacre of abalone, his favorite shell. He was always using nontraditional materials to gain traditional effects.
ANNE DRESSEN — So it wasn’t necessarily important to Tony that the materials be luxurious?
HUTTON WILKINSON — Tony worked equally well with solid gold or gold paper. If he had the budget, he would, of course, use the real thing, albeit often mixing the real with the faux, the high and low.
We could use vinyl leatherette and reflective Mylar on the ceiling,
faux leopard fur. He said, “Beauty, not luxury, is what I value,” and sometimes he paraphrased Oscar Wilde, adding, “So many people know the price but not the value.” I often say, “If it’s not fabulous,
it’s meaningless.” He was also a recycler, “the king of the found object.” Even the plants in his garden were picked up from back alleys after being thrown out by rich Beverly Hills gardeners. Look at those columns, for instance, made out of air filters. I call them “ironic columns” … his favorite material was cast resin. He thought that the
21st century would be all made of cast resin! Those giant clam shells
are very illusionary, no?
ANNE DRESSEN — Such good trompe-l’œil! But those spirit houses on the dinner table are authentic, no?
HUTTON WILKINSON — No, they are recent and inexpensively made in China, aquarium deco! But this one next to it is definitely a Ming dynasty sculpture. You know, Tony started working in a luxury store where he was supposed to simulate the seasons, even if in LA it is summer all year long.
ANNE DRESSEN — Is it actually somehow the opposite with the jewelry?
They are high-end but somehow look like costume jewelry?
HUTTON WILKINSON — Tony never did costume jewelry. We started to do fine jewelry in 1994. Before that, he probably designed only
a hundred pieces. I did the rest. He knew Elsa Schiaparelli and Chanel — we loved everything they did. And Tony knew and admired Fulco di Verdura and [David] Webb, when they were alive. But Tony and
I only valued unique pieces: everything we make is one of a kind.
We really pay attention to the individual. It looks like costume jewelry, but we use top-grade precious and semiprecious gemstones set in 18-carat gold, all made in New York. The pieces are priced between $20,000 and $250,000. They are like magic talismans. Jewelry that can protect, heal, and enchant. Victoire de Castellane, from Dior Fine Jewelry, said in an interview with The New York Times, “I love his approach of doing real jewelry in the spirit of fake jewelry.”
ANNE DRESSEN — Like his interiors, the jewelry is hard to date. That reminds me of a Codognato!
HUTTON WILKINSON — I know Attilio well. The best jeweler ever, who still makes memento mori, like in the Renaissance. Amazing.
ANNE DRESSEN — How would you and Tony present your jewelry?
HUTTON WILKINSON — In cabinet vitrines, as they are here. He often put some jewelry on figurative sculptures, like the Indian goddess.
Or on stuffed birds. He also did huge gold-leafed metal and blown-up outdoor versions. His “jewels for the garden” were eight-feet tall.
ANNE DRESSEN — Tell me about the more public decors he did, such as the Canticle of the Sun of Saint Francis of Assisi, in San Francisco ?
HUTTON WILKINSON — In the ’80s, he bought an old vandalized synagogue. He put gold everywhere, but also mosaic tapestries. It looked like an Orthodox church with a lot of golden metal — sort of primitive Byzantine. But here again, he mixed up all kinds of religions and incorporated his Madonna and the eight archangels from every religion. He made it for the bicentennial anniversary of LA, with psychedelic computerized lighting turning the face of the Virgin from white to black to yellow to red.
ANNE DRESSEN — This is now destroyed, right? Tony dealt with several fires in his life, which created a sort of mythology. He saw himself as a phoenix reborn from its flames.
HUTTON WILKINSON — Yes. Four fires destroyed his creations, the worst being his San Francisco Pavilion and the Sortilegium in Malibu. Even Dawnridge was partially burned. Each was a tragedy. He was probably born under a fire sign.
ANNE DRESSEN — Where else can we see his work today?
HUTTON WILKINSON — There really is very little left. I think the definition of decoration is “doomed to destruction.” There is the guesthouse at my ranch, where he lived at one point after his own ranch next door had burned. I told him he could do anything he wanted to the interior but not to touch the exterior. That was like telling a child not to eat the candy. I now have towers and bridges and gates and pavilions and wonderful Southeast Asian decorations. And I am very happy that he disobeyed my orders. I rather feel that what he did there is similar to the Désert de Retz outside of Paris.
ANNE DRESSEN — Tell me about his decoration for the Mocambo in LA?
HUTTON WILKINSON — Mocambo was the nightclub of LA in the ’40s. It was decorated entirely by Tony under the direction of Billy Haines. There was another disco called Club John that he decorated, which was less successful but considered to be the most beautiful club in LA.
ANNE DRESSEN — Looking at all the photos, Tony appears to be a playful person, someone who liked to get into disguise. But was he also part of the underground nightlife? Did he know Kenneth Anger, for instance?
HUTTON WILKINSON — No, Tony was very proper. This was not his crowd. But he was always open to meeting new people, especially if they were creative, rich, or beautiful to look at. And if they were all three, he would make friends for life. “Please bring him over, I would love to meet him!” was his favorite expression.
ANNE DRESSEN — You met Tony in 1972, at the age of 17. You were his apprentice and then protégé. How did you end up being his collaborator and business partner?
HUTTON WILKINSON — I wanted to work with him when I was in seventh grade! My great-uncle owned the store where Tony started.
I knew he would be my mentor after reading a profile in the Los Angeles Times. One day, my teacher told me he was looking for a volunteer. When we first met, he took me to the Ducommun house, which he had decorated and asked, “Do you find it strange?” I replied, “No, not at all, it seems normal to me.” I felt so in sync with him that I worked for two years for free, after which he paid me $50 every two weeks for three years. Then I left and opened my own decorating business and made a lot of money, and we started to invest in real estate. Later, when he was in his 70s, he was offered really great decorating jobs that he didn’t want to take. I said, “Take the jobs. I’ll do the work, and we’ll split the profits 50/50.”
ANNE DRESSEN — You are now the director of his estate, and you have published at least four books on Duquette. You actually do a lot for his memory.
But I am amazed that he is not better known. Even here in the US.
HUTTON WILKINSON — The people who should know him know him, and the ones who are not supposed to know do not know!
ANNE DRESSEN — What is his legacy today? Are you thinking of making this place more accessible to the public?
HUTTON WILKINSON — The University of Southern California was interested a few years ago in turning Dawnridge into a decorative arts library. But this would have depended on major fundraising and endowment, and the whole idea fell apart. I would be very interested in giving this property, with all of its collections, to an institution, but I’d prefer they ask me rather than me asking them. Let’s see what happens.
ANNE DRESSEN — Do you mind working under Tony’s name?
HUTTON WILKINSON — Not really. I constantly produce jewelry,
carpets, fabrics, wallpaper, porcelain, furniture, lighting under the internationally trademarked name, Tony Duquette.
ANNE DRESSEN — What did you add or change in Dawnridge since he died?
HUTTON WILKINSON — At his death, in 2000, I had to sell most of the really antique furniture in order to buy the 1949 property and pay the heirs. I also have to constantly track down Duquette’s originals at Christie’s or Sotheby’s sales to bring them back!
ANNE DRESSEN — And this is why this house does not seem frozen or dead. Look at this lunch: we are using the same plates and glasses from the photos when he was alive, right? You are the reincarnation of Duquette!
HUTTON WILKINSON — Maybe. Obviously, I take it as a compliment! You know, I pray every day that people with money get taste, and that people with taste get money. But above all, I agree with Tony when he would say, “A room should always change its skin, like a reptile.”
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