The Master of Glorious Excess

He has been called an icon of American design, a title few can lay claim to but one that fits Tony Duquette to a T. As an internationally acclaimed artist and designer, sculptor and painter, Tony Duquette had the life most people dream of. His talent for design earned him a stellar reputation and repeat business from some of the biggest names in the Hollywood and Los Angeles social set, a set he would quickly become part of as he scaled the ranks both personally and professionally. Now, a new book on Duquette penned by Hutton Wilkinson tells the story in further glorious detail of a man who can arguably be said to possess aesthetic genius, in droves.

More is More is the second tome by Wilkinson, Duquette’s business partner of 37 years and now the President and Artistic Director for Tony Duquette Studios, Inc., located in Los Angeles, California. Since Duquette’s death ten years ago at the age of 85, Wilkinson has faithfully carried on the business—indeed, it was Duquette’s wish to have him do so—as well as his incredibly rich legacy, one that now lives on under Wilkinson’s careful supervision.

Duquette embodied the spirit and over-the-top glamour of the early- and mid-Twentieth Century, one that was emerging from the formality of the last century and melding with the new spirit of a still new country. America was growing in every aspect and at every tangent, but finding its way as it did so. California was the furthest west settlers could push, embodying the full extension, physically and emotionally, of the American dream. Duquette’s design seemed to capture that burgeoning era in its most rapturous essence. It was a happy time and he got it all right: Modernity combined with Hollywood’s Golden Age, his works were an approval of and showcase for excess in all forms. And Duquette luckily associated with a population that had the wallet to handle all that he could churn out. His work was a playland of tapestries and textures, both for the body and the home, and he was one of those rare breeds that could take his talent in multiple directions: Duquette was a painter, sculptor and jeweler, crafted costumes and sets for the opera, ballet, and the theater (his costumes for the original Broadway production of Camelot won him a Tony for Best Costume), and created a myriad of custom interiors for both residential and commercial installations throughout America and Europe.

Although he was a native of Los Angeles, California, Duquette had been living between Three Rivers, Michigan and Los Angeles with his family until he went west to attend school in 1935 at the prestigious Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles; he also attended the Yale School of the Theatre, garnering scholarships from both institutions. After graduating from Chouinard Duquette worked in promotional advertising, creating special environments for the fashion industry. He founded his firm in 1941 after freelancing for legendary designers William Haines, James Pendleton and Adrian, and his family joined him around that time, moving permanently to Los Angeles. His early work included creating costumes and sets for Fred Astaire musicals with Vincente Minnelli at MGM. To his good fortune, Duquette met Lady Elsie de Wolfe Mendl, a woman known for her exceptional taste throughout her international and high society circle. Mendl quickly not only befriended Duquette but recognized his immense talent; with the patronage of her and her husband, Sir Charles Mendl, Duquette was able to establish himself as one of the leading designers of the age.

As his standing in the film industry grew, Duquette worked on both sets and costumes for many Metro Goldwyn Mayer productions under the auspices of the great producer, Arthur Freed as well as Minnelli, one of the most popular directors of his day. Duquette designed interiors for Mary Pickford and her second husband, Buddy Rogers (who offered to hold Duquette’s wedding to Elizabeth Johnstone, also a talented artist and painter, at their celebrated home, Pickfair), designed jewelry and special furnishings for Lady Mendl, and fashioned interiors for numerous nightclubs and public places as well. In the middle of it all, ironically, Duquette did his duty by serving his country in World War II, leaving for a four-year stint in the army). After the liberation of Paris, he accompanied Sir Charles and Lady Mendl on their return trip to Europe and was introduced to their many friends there. After his marriage to Elizabeth in 1949-one that would last 46 years-the Duquette built a life rich with culture, art, and society, counting Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, Fred Astaire, Hedda Hopper, Oscar Levant, Vernon Duke, and Marion Davies among their personal friends and professional colleagues.

Duquette’s accomplishments are almost too numerous to mention:
He worked on films and theatre such as Kismet, Yolanda and the Thief, Lovely to Look At, and The Ziegfeld Follies for MGM, as well as Jest of Cards, and Beauty and the Beast. He created elegant interiors for Doris Duke, Norton Simon, and J. Paul Getty—even a castle in Ireland for Elizabeth Arden. His interiors for commercial and public spaces are well known, notably the Hilton Hawaiian Village, Sheraton Universal Hotel, and sculptures and tapestries for the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Chicago as well as the Los Angeles Music Center and the University of California at Los Angeles. For the San Francisco Ballet, he designed costumes and sets to Balanchine’s famed work, Dance Concertante. Duquette’s costume and settings for opera include “Der Rosenkavelier”, “The Magic Flute”, and “Salome”.

In 1951, Duquette was asked to present his works at the Pavilion de Marsan of the Louvre Museum, Paris, unprecedented, as Duquette was the first American artist to have been so honored with a one-man exhibition at the famous museum; subsequently, his neo-Baroque works were then chosen by the Louvre to represent the decorative arts of the Twentieth Century. Returning from a year in France, where he received design commissions from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and the Alsatian industrialist Commandant Paul Louis Weiller, Duquette was honored with a one man showing of his works at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This was one of many one man museum exhibitions throughout his lifetime, at institutions far and wide, from the M.H. de Young Museum and Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco to The El Paso Museum of Art to The Museum of the City of New York, to exhibitions in Dallas, Chicago, Rio de Janeiro and Phoenix. In 1956, the Duquettes opened a salon in the converted silent film studios of actress Norma Talmadge. Now legendary, The Tony Duquette Studios served as the locale for many a Duquette Fete, with such luminaries gracing these hallowed halls as Arthur Rubenstein, Aldous Huxley, and Jascha Heifitz.

Duquette’s extraordinary house in Beverly Hills, Dawndridge, was the crowning glory and personal showplace of his fantastical design. With Wilkinson’s purchase of Dawndridge after Duquette’s passing, the home has continued as the headquarters for the firm and the showpiece it always was, standing unchanged and inspiring all who pass through its doors. Collections of fine jewelry and home furnishings will continue to be presented by Wilkinson, and are currently available through select Saks Fifth Avenue stores including, New York and Palm Beach; a separate collection-The Selected Works of Tony Duquette-is also available through the furniture company Baker. Tony Duquette’s design legacy no doubt has a consistent and loyal following of clients around the globe. After all, he created magical interiors, one-of-a-kind fine jewelry-such as that for Tom Ford at Gucci-and works of art right up until his death. He was never one to rest on his laurels, rather crafting them into further imaginative works, leaving for all the world to behold.

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