It's a midwinter morning so bright you could get sunburned sitting next to a window, and the house's details are almost too much to take in. But Wilkinson's half-serious assessment of the new project as "minimal" makes sense if you consider the years he collaborated with Duquette, whose work was even more baroque.
Duquette, who died in 1999, was a design prodigy, and his eccentric style — encouraged early on by iconic decorator Elsie de Wolfe — found full expression in homes he created for such clients as J. Paul Getty, Doris Duke, Elizabeth Arden, and Dodie Rosekrans. He mixed fine antiques with reproductions and his own unique pieces and curlicues of delirious imagination — movie props, faux coral branches, spray-painted hubcaps, and gallons of vivid paint. ("Green is a neutral color," he once said.) The title of Wilkinson's book on Duquette's life sums up the approach: More Is More.
"Tony said to me once, 'My clients could afford anything,' " recalls Wilkinson. "Dodie could have out-Frenched the French in Paris. But what we did was something different — something strange."
He started working for Duquette as a teenager in 1971, later becoming a full-fledged partner and now president of the firm and guardian of the master's flame. The two men were soul mates in design, and during their many years of collaboration, it was hard to know where the one talent merged into the other. By the Duquette standard, then, Wilkinson's new home isn't "strange"; it's merely theatrical. The black-coral-gold color scheme is an idea he first devised with Duquette ("My idea of white is coral," says Wilkinson), and the basic three-story floor plan echoes Duquette's famous Dawnridge home nearby.
Wilkinson describes his new house as a place made for entertaining, which he does often, greeting guests in full silk-robed splendor, with Ruth resplendent in a jeweled one-of-a-kind Tony Duquette parure. The themed balls Duquette and his wife, Elizabeth, gave were equally notable for the decor and the guests — Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Grace, Tennessee Williams, Liza Minnelli, and Andy Warhol — and the Wilkinsons continue the tradition.
"I can't wait until we can have an orchestra and singers on that platform," says Wilkinson, pointing to an elevated "stage" in the living room, "with dancing all through the garden."
The couple's private quarters are up the staircase, which is painted with Wilkinson's family tree — monkeys swing among its branches — in the top-floor bedroom suite designed to look like an "afterthought" stuck on the roof "like a hat," he says. "When we're upstairs, we're seven stories above the lake at the bottom of the garden, so it's like being in a penthouse."
Throughout the main rooms, he purposely avoided any architectural details that might define a certain style. "If I wanted to make this house Chinese tomorrow, I could make it Chinese," he explains. "If I wanted to make it Palladian, I could add a few columns. I kept it like a stage set."
Which makes Wilkinson the star of center stage, a spot he relishes. He is a showman; his conversation is an old-world mix of erudition and gossip. For instance, when explaining that the Venetian paintings in his house were originally acquired by Duquette in the 1940s from Baroness Catherine D'Erlanger, he adds that when she immigrated to Hollywood, she opened a landmark gay bar. "It was called Café Gala. Everybody went there — boys, girls, goats...."
Like the Venetian paintings, most of the objects are quality antiques with sentimental associations, what he calls "our best and happiest stuff." The library holds a collection of Spanish colonial art from his mother's aristocratic Bolivian family. (Wilkinson's full name is Hutton José Wilkinson-Tejada, and in 2008, the king of Spain issued a letter of succession granting Wilkinson rights to the hereditary title of the 4th Count of Alastaya.) The 18th-century daybed in Ruth's room is the first piece she ever acquired for herself, and the custom wall covering features a blown-up painting by Elizabeth Duquette.
But Wilkinson's favorite object at the moment is an elaborate centerpiece with eight candlesticks by Venetian jeweler Attilio Codognato. The set came from Dodie Rosekrans's estate, and he snatched it at auction last winter for the bargain price of $10,000. The catalog omitted the maker's name, but Wilkinson recognized it, since he had introduced Rosekrans to Codognato. During their first visit together to the jeweler's shop, they stayed for hours, and Rosekrans walked out with a purse full of treasure.
"I was in shock," Wilkinson recalls. "I said, 'You know, Dodie, you just spent more in two hours than you spent on your entire palazzo.' She said, 'I know.' At the auction, people didn't know what they were buying, so I got the whole centerpiece for the price of one candlestick. I'm the happiest person on earth."
He brings equal passion to projects for clients. Wilkinson prefers to work alone and personally designs every room. "I never did more than one house a year," he says. He also continues to create fine jewelry under the Tony Duquette name (the pieces have been worn by Reese Witherspoon, Halle Berry, and Annette de la Renta) as well as a range of licensed fabrics, furniture, and lighting fixtures.
But by most measures, his main achievement has been stage-crafting the lives of a few very wealthy clients in the Duquette tradition. In this sense, Wilkinson's new house is like an archive — one part palazzo, one part rarefied pawn shop — that tells the story of his life with Duquette, though in his own distinctive voice.
"Of all the things I've done," he says, "this is me."
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