If you love Hollywood
Regency style, there is no doubt that you share my obsession and admiration for
Dorothy Draper, aptly proclaimed “America’s most fabulous decorator.” Draper reinvented the profession of interior design,
establishing the first interior design company in the United States in 1923, a
time when it was unheard of for a woman to launch a business.
mischievous and contrasting patterns, groundbreaking color combinations and
larger than life florals turned the industry on its ear, and now decades later,
her iconic style is still admired, studied and often emulated. Today’s most celebrated decorators like Jonathan Adler or
Kelly Wearstler were hugely influenced by her.
“Dorothy Draper was to
decorating what Chanel was to fashion,” former protégé & Dorothy
Draper & Co. President Carleton Varney says about the legendary decorator
“Dorothy Draper was to
born to a wealthy and privileged family in 1889, in one of the most exclusive
communities in American history, Tuxedo Park, NY. The
glamorous debutant married George Draper, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s personal
doctor. (Eleanor Roosevelt and Dorothy Draper were cousins.)
high-profile connections also included her niece, Nancy Truckerman, who became
famous as Jackie Kennedy’s White House social secretary. And Draper’s younger cousin, Sister Parish, also would become a major interior
designer of the 20th Century, best known for her work on the
Kennedy White House. Draper even employed Brooke Marshall (who
later became Brooke Astor) as her secretary.
three children, and Dorothy Draper pursued her passion of home decorating. She
redecorated their first home, and it was received with such overwhelming
enthusiasm that it was shortly sold, completely furnished. Dorothy Draper
redecorated her homes with such style that other high society friends began to
ask her to do the same for their homes, and thus her decorating business began.
and whimsical style of decorating provided a welcome breath of fresh air to the
drab Victorian-era “period rooms” that were de rigueur of the day. In 1925, Draper opened the Architectural
Clearing House, believed to be the first official interior design business.
over,” said Draper. “Color is coming into its own again. Until very recently
people were literally scared out of their wits by color. Perhaps this was a
hangover from our Puritan ancestors. But whatever the reason, brown, grays and
neutrals were the only shades considered ‘safe.’ Now we know that lovely, clear
colors have a vital effect on our mental happiness.”
I couldn’t agree
more! Draper revolutionized the way we look at interior design. She was always
trying new things and pushing people to think outside the beige box by boldly
mixing and matching color and pattern, and by adding modern flare to classical
style. For Draper, Beige was a dirty word. Her advice was to
“jumble periods cheerfully.” Draper
invented “Modern Baroque,” a bold, eccentric and irreverent take on classic
traditional rooms – an anti-minimalist approach that would become known as
I couldn’t agree
her ambition went into high gear, and she parlayed her blue-blood background
into a big business.
synonymous with sophistication. She was the Martha Stewart of her era, the original
domestic diva, who actually out-Marthaed Martha, spreading her gospel of big,
bold style to housewives eager for some excitement and style in their lives.
Draper was on a mission to help middle class Americans turn their “dull,
weary life into a miracle of charm, glamor and excitement.” Umm… yes, please!!!
Her legendary design style became known as the
“Draper Touch.” She wrote regular
columns for Good Housekeeping and her 1939 book, Decorating Is Fun,
which helped make her name a household word. She also wrote the acclaimed How to be a Popular Hostess (reissued in
“Have you ever
considered how much pure stuff and nonsense surrounds this subject of interior
decoration? Probably not. Almost everyone believes that there is something deep
and mysterious about it or that you have to know all sorts of complicated
details about periods before you can lift a finger. Well, you don’t. Decorating
is just sheer fun: a delight in color, an awareness of balance, a feeling for
lighting, a sense of style, a zest for life and an amused enjoyment of the smart
accessories of the moment.” – Dorothy Draper, Decorating is Fun!
restaurant décor. She also designed theaters, department stores, commercial
establishments, private corporate offices, interiors of jet planes (Convair
& TWA), automobiles (she did a line for Packard and Chrysler in the 1950s
including a pink polka dot truck!) and packaging for a cosmetics line, Dorothy
Gray. The restaurant at the Metropolitan
Museum of Art (NY) was nicknamed “The Dorotheum”. This was all on top of
Draper’s ongoing residential designs for the houses and apartments of prominent
and very wealthy society figures. Draper
even designed her own very exclusive fabrics for her clients through
Schumacher, along with furniture
for Ficks Reed, Heritage and Henredon.
Draper for Henredon, Viennese collection (vintage)
Elements of “Draperism” consist of:
A bold and unexpected mix of strikingly bright,
exuberant colors, such as aubergine and pink with a splash of chartreuse and a
touch of turquoise blue
Tropical leaves and oversized floral chintz
Large prints and broad stripes that encompass
Black and white patterned and checkerboard
doses of black and white with dashes of bright colors
Oversized and sparkling chandeliers
Ornately flourished mirrors
plaster frames, sconces and chandeliers, preferably with scrolled and Baroque
Romantic and whimsical oversized furniture=
colonial revival, Chinese style, neo-classicism, all jumbled together to give
you this eclectic, theatrical style,” said Donald Albrecht, curator of the Dorothy
The pinnacle of her career was perhaps the 1948 renovation
of the historic Greenbrier Hotel. Built
in 1858 (and almost burnt to the ground during the Civil War) in Sulphur
Springs, West Virginia, The Greenbrier still stands as a living monument to
“Draperism.” It’s re-opening was a great
social event. Bing Crosby sang in Draper’s pink ballroom to America’s
wealthiest families, including Vanderbilts, Astors, and Whitneys. The guests of
honor were the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Draper had not only refreshed the 600-plus guest
rooms and all the public areas, but everything within including the menu,
matchbooks, invitations, coasters, napkins, swizzle sticks and staff
Over the last decade, Dorothy Draper style has
received resound resurgence.
Museum of the City of New York’s exhibit “The High Style of Dorothy
Draper” highlighted some of the designer’s large public commissions and featured
her influence on shaping American style. The exhibition
represented the first time that such an honor was given to an interior
designer. It was enormously successful, and it is estimated that more than
300,000 people attended over a period of six months. The exhibit continued to the
Woman’s Museum in Dallas, Texas and then on to the Museum of Art in Fort
Lauderdale, Florida – such is the interest of this phenomenal giant in the
Color Collection of 15 signature shades, including Pretty in Pink and Blazing
protégé Carleton Varney. The remodel along
with the publication of In The Pink reintroduced Dorothy Draper to a
whole new generation of young designers.
a line of Draper-inspired furniture for Kindel and he reproduced all the
original fabrics and wallpapers of Dorothy Draper, along with his own original
designs. Varney’s patterns are available for purchase through Carleton Varney by theYard
or through the GreenbrierHotel Gift Shop.
commode, Kindel – Dorothy
Draper Collection in collaboration with Carleton Varney
Design House of Dorothy Draper & Company, Inc. remains the oldest
continuously operating design and decorating firm in America. Having taken the reins in 1963 at the tender
age of 29, Varney (aka “Mr. Color”) continues to keep the Draper Touch
colorfully alive and well.