Design insider Elvis Presley's often-derided, turn-of-the-century bordello-decked Graceland proves the King was nothing if not fashion forward.
Designer in disguise
As far as famous homes and interiors are concerned, there are only three I've ever really wanted to see. Karen Blixen's farm in Africa, Coco Chanel's apartment on the rue Cambon in Paris and Elvis Presley's Graceland estate in Memphis, Tennessee. The rationale for this is because all three of them have had an influence on who I am, what I wear and where I've been. I was fortunate to visit Blixen's Nairobi estate some years back - a still-life image of colonial chic at its best but masking what was a stoical existence and ultimately unhappy life. While the perfection of the rooms brought tears to my eyes, it was also disappointing. Not only because of Robert Redford's absence, but because it seemed so much smaller than I had imagined. The sprawling suburbs of Nairobi had encroached on the coffee plantation and Blixen's backyard was not the sweeping path leading to a vista of the Ngong hills but a foreshortened drive that seemed in danger of disappearing altogether.
Fortunately, there is no danger of Graceland disappearing. Elvis's home is probably the best-known private residence in the world. It currently serves as a museum and is the most visited tourist attraction in the US after the White House. This week will likely see an extra influx of tourists - Elvis, who died on Aug 11 1977, is buried there in its Meditation Gardens. Graceland, although the inspiration for several movies and songs (Finding Graceland, 3000 Miles to Graceland and Paul Simon's famous tune) until recently has been the subject of derision and its interior has done nothing to dispel the slightly lurid myths surrounding the late king of rock 'n' roll. Critics claim that the furniture is cheap-looking and the design ethos, as the biographer Albert Goldman wrote in his book Elvis, "appears to have been lifted from some turn-of-the-century bordello down in the French Quarter of New Orleans". This comment possibly has much to do with Elvis's preference for the colour red. However, as with the crystal-encrusted suits that he wore, to those of us who like him, you either accept the total package or you don't. And in case you haven't noticed, red is huge this year, both on the catwalk and the couch.
Another design feature that always strikes visitors is the massive bespoke sofa in the sitting room. Twenty years ago, highbrow minds thought this tacky. Now, however, we're all ordering custom-made L-shaped sofas to decorate our super-sized houses. So, it seems, as in his music, Elvis was way ahead of the pack in trend-setting terms. Consider if you will a few more facts about Graceland. Originally a modest colonial-style mansion belonging to a local publisher, it was bought by Elvis for $100,000 in 1957. He started to renovate almost as soon as he arrived. The rooms in the basement are a testimony to his quirkiness. The TV Room is where he often watched three televisions at once. Nowadays unless a home has an in-house cinema or multiple plasma screens, it's considered slightly "last century".
Perhaps the most outlandish space in the house is the Jungle Room, a kitschy interior that is part Flintstones, part nature reserve. We could perhaps label the look "organic" or eco-friendly nowadays. While arbiters of good taste may sneer at these details, I still maintain that Elvis was fashion forward. Flick through any celebrity home magazine and each new star will have, perhaps unconsciously, taken a leaf from Elvis's Graceland. These days, any house worth its interior sports a plethora of one-off pieces. Whether we like it or not, the essence of the Elvis look is as alive today as his records.