Decorators to Know: Rose Cumming | The Study

Decorators to Know: Rose Cumming

No one is quite sure about when Rose Cumming was born, which tells you something right away about this celebrated decorator and antiquaire. There are, however, a few facts of which we are certain. She sailed to New York shortly after the end of the WWI from her native Australia. Her sister Dorothy, a silent screen star, who went on to have a career in Hollywood, likely traveled with her.

A portrait of Rose Cumming.

A portrait of a young Rose Cumming.

It’s probably through this sister that she became acquainted with Frank Crowninshield, the influential editor of Vanity Fair. Cumming, who must have been in her mid- to late-20s when she arrived in the city, was apparently at a loss as to what she should do with her life and sought out Crowninshield’s advice. Perhaps thinking of the then-burgeoning design career of the former actress Elsie de Wolfe, he ventured that this witty, attractive and quite stylish young woman might become a decorator. Supposedly she replied “Perhaps, I would, but first tell me what it is.”

And so another legendary decorating career was launched. “Miss Rose,” as she came to be known, might not have been an actress, but she was a bohemian with a flair for drama. She died her hair lavender, wore dresses with serious cleavage, along with ornately embroidered Mandarin robes and enormous hats, though not at the same time. One might argue that all the great women decorators of the early 20th century possessed some quirky traits, but with Cumming the quirky verged on kooky. Yet there lay her brilliance, as she created fancifully feminine, richly hued interiors, deeply scented with exoticism — sometimes almost to the point of cloying.

A music room by Cumming.

A music room by Cumming.

She lost no time in setting up a street-level antiques shop with big windows on the corner of Park Avenue and 59th Street, which also served as the base for her decorating business. Her knack for retail was soon obvious, as she was the first New York shopkeeper to keep the lights on in her store at night. Among the clients she attracted were some of the era’s biggest movie stars: Mary Pickford, Marlene Dietrich and Gloria Swanson. All these larger-than-life “Normas” required living spaces as big and theatrical as they were. Over the years her shop served as a hang out for celebrated aesthetes of all orders, from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Rudolph Nureyev to Jackie Onassis and Andy Warhol.

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Cumming’s New York drawing room decorated with 18th-century Chinese wallpaper

Cumming soon became known for fashioning rooms out of satin and taffeta upholstery; Austrian baroque, Venetian rococo, and neo-Gothic furniture; Oriental bird cages; distressed, gold-veined mirrors; highly polished floors; showy crystal chandeliers; and of course, Chinoiserie. She was the first person to make metallic wallpapers, and was also responsible for the eccentric “zebrine” decorative paper that covered the walls of the ultra-chic New York nightclub, El Morocco.

Actress Audrey Hepurn at the Cumming-designed El Morocco.

Actress Audrey Hepurn at the Cumming-designed El Morocco.

Her unusual wallpaper palettes — pink and green leopard spots, melon and periwinkle-hued chintz — look quite contemporary today, which might be why they are still available through the design company Dessin Fournir. She possessed many bête noirs, among them coffee tables, faux ceiling beams, wall-to-wall carpeting, except on a staircase or in a bedroom, and just about every lamp she ever saw. Apparently she disliked them because of her “distrust” of electricity, which she tried to do without. She lived instead in rooms illumined only by the flicker of black candles, until her death in 1968.

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The sitting room at Cumming’s own New York City brownstone.

In her day, Cumming was considered an eccentric, but now she seems more like a standard bearer for today’s new breed of woman for whom flamboyant is the new black. And this may be why her flamboyant interior design is being examined once more.


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