Dorothy Draper: Design’s Grande Dame

Dorothy Draper’s name might not be bandied around as much as it used to be when she reigned as an ultimate tastemaker. But her bold, modern Baroque influence is still felt today, just look at interiors by an up-and-coming young buck like Miles Redd, or her abiding affection for emerald green, Pantone’s pick for the colour of 2013.

From the roaring ’20s to the swinging ’60s, Draper was the uncontested doyenne of interior design. The first professional interior designer, her firm still operates in New York. She paved the way for modern media mavens by penning a decor column in Good Housekeeping and a book, Decorating is Fun! (1939 Pointed Leaf Press), collaborated with fabric firm Schumacher & Co. on a tropical print called “Braziliance” and designed a pink polka dot truck for Packard.

Draper hailed from a privileged background and grew up in tony Tuxedo Park, New York. Her star rose just as Americans were shaking off their dowdy Edwardian colour schemes. She was famous for creating fantastical commercial spaces (she looked down her nose at interior design for private homes). Clients who had the nerve to question her decisions were rebuffed by “Perhaps you don’t really want us to do this job?” She said, “I don’t believe there is any rule in the game that can’t be broken.” In a word, she was fearless.

Clashing colours, big floral prints, and black and white floors were Draper’s trademark. To her design was entertainment — a themed experience that encompassed architecture, furnishings, matchbooks and staff uniforms. She didn’t care if a room was historically accurate and encouraged clients to “jumble periods cheerfully,” even advising them to dye antique Persian rugs.

Draper’s design of California’s Arrowhead Springs Hotel was so detailed it included pink-and-white wrapping for the bathroom soap and the black-and-red swizzle sticks in the bar.

According to Carlton Varney, author of The Draper Touch (1988 Simon & Schuster) and president of Draper & Co. in New York, her favourite combos were aubergine and pink with chartreuse and turquoise, or dull white and shiny black. Her signature cabbage rose chintz was often paired with bold stripes and she loved elaborate plaster mouldings and ornate mirror frames.

The Victorian Writing Room (above) in the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia was once considered the most photographed room in the U.S. Designer Thom Filicia says Draper took classical elements and injected them with an incredible amount of fantasy: “She exaggerated it and made it feel new and clean.” But not everyone was a fan. Draper’s outrageous eye prompted architect Frank Lloyd Wright to call her an ‘inferior desecrator.’ Do you think Dorothy had the magic touch?

For more classic American design, see Katharine Hepburn’s Beach House and a Relaxed Georgia Mansion.

Photo credits:
1. Fauxology blog
2. Museum of New York City blog
3. Re-Do It Design blog
4. Jodie Carter Design blog
5. Cabbage Rose Outpost blog
6. Villa Bisono blog

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