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More, Always More — Tony Duquette’s Protégé Hutton Wilkinson Comes to Dallas for Texas Design Week

BY // 10.15.18
photography Tim Street-Porter

Designer Tony Duquette lived life to the hilt, putting his lavish, over-the-top spin on interiors, costumes, stage settings, and jewelry for a glittering orbit of admirers that included Hollywood stars and European aristocracy. Nowhere was Duquette more at home than at Dawnridge, his fabled folly overlooking Beverly Hills. Duquette’s protégé and business partner, Hutton Wilkinson, the wildly talented keeper of the flame, launches his new book this month, Tony Duquette’s Dawnridge (Abrams).

Hutton will be at Hall Arts Residences Wednesday, October 24 for an evening of cocktails, book signing and an illustrated talk of decoration with glittering tales of designing with Tony Duquette, and travels with Elsie de Wolfe.

Wilkinson, CEO of Tony Duquette Studios, tells the tales  of the storied house he knows so well. Tony Duquette’s Dawnridge chronicles the estate’s glamorous parties and many distinguished tenants, including Marlon Brando, who lived there in the 1950s while filming Julius Caesar. Over the decades, the property expanded into a lavish compound of houses and gardens, including Casa del Conde, a 1930s guesthouse with a dining room paneled in 18th-century French boiserie.

A maximalist Mecca, Dawnridge inspired legions of design lovers and tastemakers. Diana Vreeland, Liza Minnelli, Miuccia Prada, Angela Missoni, James Galanos all were Dawnridge habitués. Tom Ford shot his lavish Gucci ads there, and the house was featured in ad campaigns for Bulgari. Dawnridge continues to capture our imagination, thanks in large part to Wilkinson, who kept his mentor’s legacy alive with Tony Duquette lighting, porcelains, fabrics, and furniture, including a collection for Maitland-Smith that debuts this month.

Like Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold, designer Tony Duquette conjured beauty from the banal. Everything he touched was infused with his singular magic: A silver hubcap was the gleaming centerpiece for an improvised sunburst, a lemon juicer became a finial for a lamp, and plastic fast-food baskets were fashioned into folding screens.

He was a trompe l’oeil genius who created the look of antique mirrored walls from the pressed foil of Chinese takeout containers. Upon closer inspection, malachite, lapis, tooled leather, and jaguar pelts turn out to be paint, paper, cloth, and canvas. Nowhere is Duquette’s sleight of hand more celebrated than at Dawnridge, the fabled folly he built 69 years ago for his bride, artist Elizabeth “Beegle” Duquette.

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Nestled in the cleft of a rocky ledge high above Beverly Hills, Dawnridge was built in 1949 to Tony’s specifications by architect Caspar Ehmcke. The original 30’ by 30’ house was divided into a series of three rooms in front and a main, double-height drawing room with a staircase in back. Small and elegant, Dawnridge was called the grandest house in Beverly Hills at the time, and when Tony’s society friends saw it, they all wanted one, too — only bigger.

Tony and Beegle christened their new home with a spectacular bal de derrière, or bustle ball, at which women wore gowns with bustles and servants dressed in 18th-century livery. Hollywood legends turned out, Fred Astaire, Mary Pickford, Buddy Rogers, and Loretta Young. For a year, the house played host to an endless number of over-the-top dinner parties, with exotic entertainments by troupes of Chinese acrobats, Balinese dancers, and balalaika orchestras.

Dawnridge was the perfect backdrop to the Duquettes’ opulent entertaining style. Though dazzling, “it was really just a beautiful stage set held together with tape and glue,” says Hutton Wilkinson, Tony’s longtime collaborator, who acquired Dawnridge after the designer’s death in 1999.

After all, Tony designed lavish film sets for director Vincente Minnelli and costumes and stage sets for the ballet and Broadway — he won a Tony Award for best costume design for Camelot. In his lifetime, Tony designed bold jewelry for the Duchess of Windsor, Tom Ford, and Oscar de la Renta. He created equally bold interiors for his early mentor Elsie de Wolfe, William Haines, J. Paul Getty, David O. Selznick, and Doris Duke, among a slew of other notables.

Still, he was at his most uninhibited at Dawnridge. Rooms brim with his fanciful bejeweled sculptures and trompe l’oeil. They teem with exquisite chinoiserie, ancient sculptures of Indian deities, crystal chandeliers, and centuries’ worth of European antiques. Animal prints, red coral, gilt, minerals, and taxidermy abound.

It wasn’t enough to encase a stuffed cockatoo under glass; it had to sport a gilt Balinese headpiece and perch atop beautiful shells. “Tony’s philosophy was ‘more is more,’” Wilkinson says.

For 30 years, the two traveled to the likes of Burma, Bali, and Thailand, bringing back treasures for clients who sought Tony’s outsized design style.

“It was all about layering,” Wilkinson says. “You didn’t just put paint on the walls; you put fabric over the paint, then you put a tapestry over that, and then you hung a painting in the middle. It was over-decorated to the hilt.”

Hutton and his wife, Ruth, live next door to Dawnridge at Casa la Condesa, a house they built in 2011. Dawnridge serves as the headquarters for the Tony Duquette design business, and the jewelry collection, which Hutton and Duquette launched in 1995. Fewer than 60 pieces are made each year, all with precious and semiprecious stones, many culled from a vast collection of gems Tony amassed as far back as 1947.

Talk of jewels recalls one of Hutton’s favorite stories, which reveals how his collaborator sought to elicit beauty from just about everything.

“A client gave Tony a bag full of emeralds, and it just happened to be on the day Tony’s gardener had killed a rattlesnake on his Malibu ranch,” he tells me. “Tony had the gardener boil the snake and strip it down to its vertebrae. When he saw the amazing bleached bones, he started sticking the emeralds to it with wax,” later setting the stones in 18K gold bezels.

“It was one of the most beautiful necklaces I have ever seen.”

The client’s daughter didn’t share that sentiment, however and sold the bejeweled skeleton at a pawnshop for $600. Today, that original Duquette design could fetch tens of thousands of dollars. But, who knows?

“We’ve been searching for that necklace ever since,” Wilkinson says.

Tony Duquette was just 27 years old when the jewel-encrusted plaster-and-glass centerpiece he created for a dinner party caught the attention of design sensation Elsie de Wolfe. It was 1941, and Wolfe had recently fled Nazi-occupied Paris for Los Angeles. At the time, Duquette freelanced as an interior designer for William “Billy” Haines, who invited him to the party. Wolfe immediately took Duquette under her wing and hired him to decorate her new Beverly Hills house.

The 85-year-old Wolfe, English aristocrat-turned-interior designer, launched Duquette into a glamorous world of designing costumes and settings for MGM productions and interiors for Mary Pickford, and other Hollywood stars. After Paris was liberated in 1947, Wolfe — known in Europe as Lady Mendl — introduced him to her aristocratic set.

Paris fell in love with his idiosyncratic style, and he was the first American artist to have a solo exhibition at the Louvre. One of Duquette’s most memorable jewelry commissions was from the Duke of Windsor for the Duchess: a platinum necklace of wreaths and flowers studded with large citrines, peridots, and pearls.

The Drawing Room at Dawnridge
The Drawing Room at Dawnridge

Duquette was already a legend in the world of design by the time 17-year-old Hutton Wilkinson began working for him in 1968. For the next three decades, Duquette and his protégé were inseparable.

“We traveled everywhere together,” says Wilkinson, “and we had so much fun, always laughing and laughing.” Duquette amassed 10 houses later in life, many of which Wilkinson helped decorate. All cleverly named, the houses were magical actualizations of the miniature “estates” Duquette had created as a child from twigs and painted cardboard in the side yards and empty lots near his family home.

They included Frogmore, which was salvaged from an 18th-century Irish storefront; Doorchester, constructed entirely of old paneled doors; and China, a conglomeration of gilded Chinese carvings.

In 1985, Wilkinson and Duquette purchased and renovated a historic synagogue in San Francisco, where they displayed Duquette’s work. For many years, Duquette and his wife, Beegle, lived in a defunct film studio in L.A., which they renovated. Meanwhile, Dawnridge and another house they owned next door — called New Dawnridge — were rented out, mostly to people in the movie industry. When a fire at New Dawnridge burned it to the ground under suspicious circumstances — a body was found in the rubble — it was leveled.

The empty lot made way for the lavish gardens and terraces that have since transformed Dawnridge into a large estate. The Duqettes moved back and, in 1975, commissioned the original architect, Caspar Ehmcke, to add a bedroom wing and kitchen, among other changes. Dawnridge became their private retreat, which they only opened for special parties, including one for Duquette’s goddaughter, Liza Minnelli.

Like his mentor Elsie de Wolfe, Duquette didn’t believe in formal dining rooms, and hosted dinners all over Dawnridge. For Minnelli’s dinner, he turned the garage into a magical impromptu dining area, with walls encrusted in mirrors and faux malachite. The multilevel gardens, studded with fantasy pavilions and sculptures, hosted al fresco lunches and dinners. At night, lanterns and chandeliers sparkled from the branches of flowering trees.

In the 1990s, Dawnridge suffered a major fire (one of many that befell Tony’s properties over the years). But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Dawnridge returned to its original glory — this time with Hutton’s stamp.

After his wife’s death in 1995, Duquette gifted the contents of Dawnridge to the Wilkinsons. When Duquette himself died, they auctioned much of the furniture and art to satisfy taxes and Duquette’s heirs. Reported to be the largest house sale in American history at the time, the Christie’s auction took place over three days in a Santa Monica airport hangar and sold more than 2,000 objects.

The Wilkinsons eventually sold their own house to purchase Dawnridge, which they redecorated with firnishings Tony and Beegle Duquette had made, as well as some of the Duquettes’ favorite antiques. The Wilkinsons lived there until their own home, Casa La Condesa, was finished on the compound in 2011.

Dawnridge continues to play host to glamorous, themed events, such as a recent “Return to the Raj” party thrown by the Wilkinsons. Guests dressed in Indian and English Colonial attire of the Raj era, and staff sported gold lamé and turbans with feather plumes. Wilkinson’s own gift for collecting and decoration breathed new life into the famed estate, but as he says, it’s done with great sympathy to what the Duquettes would have wanted.

“The rooms are filled with wonderful memories of Tony and Beegle and their glamorous friends,” Wilkinson says. “If these walls could talk, I assure you, they’d scream!”

Hutton Wilkinson will discuss decoration, ornamentation, and life with Tony Duquette and Elsie de Wolfe at a divine talk and book signing as part of Texas Design Week Dallas, Wednesday, October 24, 6:30 pm, at HALL Arts Residences. Wilkinson will sign copies of his new book, Tony Duquette’s Dawnridge (Abrams).

For information and ticketing, go to texasdesignweek.com.

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