Friday, August 19, 2016

Honoring the Greats: Dorothy Draper

Before we delve in to another "honoring the greats" post, I have to be honest.  I actually wanted to write about the late, great Edith Wharton today.  Sorry, Dorothy!  However, as I was collecting my research and preparing my draft, I realized that Edith was someone so complex, so layered, so much a "Renaissance Woman", that paying homage to her properly would take a few days of reading and studying.  Not to say that Dorothy wasn't a trailblazer herself- she practically invented the interior design profession in a time when women simply did not work.  She's also credited with helping to create the Hollywood Regency style, with it's bright exuberant colors, slick glossy surfaces, and rococo scroll work details. 


Dorothy was born in to the prestigious Tuckerman family in Tuxedo Park, New York in 1889.  Her great-grandfather, Oliver Wolcott, was one of the 56 delegates to sign the Declaration of Independence.  Despite her family's prestige, Dorothy never had a formal education of any kind.  She later said, "I had no schooling to speak of, except that I was brought up where I had the privilege of being constantly in touch with surroundings of pleasant taste."  Her family also traveled extensively in Europe while she was growing up, which helped to inform and sharpen her keen design eye.

{Greenbrier Hotel lobby, designed by Dorothy in 1948}

In 1912, Dorothy married Dr. George Draper  (Franklin Roosevelt's personal doctor after he contracted polio) and began decorating their homes exuberantly.   She had a natural confidence in her design sensibilities that allowed her to shake up the stiff, buttoned up style of the Victorian era.  Up to that point, rooms were decorated in a specific "period," without much fluidity or thought to connecting the rooms from one to the next.  Dorothy threw all conventional rules up to that point out the window and livened up the drab home fashions of the day.   She designed according to her mantra- "If it looks right, it is right", and gravitated towards a maximalist palette of oversized florals (she particularly loved cabbage rose chintz), vibrant colors, glossy finishes, and anything with glitz and glam.   Soon, she was causing such a stir with her lively designs that she decided to form the first ever interior design firm- The Architectural Clearing House (which later became Dorothy Draper & Co). 


Although Dorothy's husband ran off with another woman right after the Stock Market Crash of 1929, she clung to her work and continued to decorate with fervor.    This is one of the many reasons I admire her so- she once said, "Never look back, except for an occasional glance, look ahead and plan for the future. Success is not built on past laurels, but rather on a continuous activity. Keep busy searching out new ideas and, experimentally, keep ahead of the times, or at least up with them."   And onward and upward she went! 



{Carlyle Hotel lounge in 1937}

She began to prefer to design in a realm where she wouldn't be restricted by a client's specific taste- namely, hotels and resorts.  She designed the famous Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan's Upper East Side (one of my favorite spots to grab a martini) as well as the Hampshire House on Central Park South.   But perhaps the pinnacle of her career was her design of the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia:


It wasn't just the interior details Dorothy dreamt up and created for the Greenbrier.  She took control and designed every tiny detail of the entire resort experience.  As Dorothy Draper & Company's website says, "Her confidence, as much as her taste, gave her the ability to take control of a hotel project in all aspects of design – right down to the designs for menus, matchbook covers and the staff uniforms."


The designs Dorothy created can still be seen when visiting the Greenbrier- much is the very same as when she first worked on the hotel, with a bit of a freshening up in 2007 by Carlton Varney, the current President of Dorothy Draper & Co.  How can it be possible that an interior originally designed in 1948 still feels lively and beautiful in 2016? 



To me, that is the mark of a gifted designer.   Not only did Dorothy transform spaces, she also designed furniture, penned a monthly decorative advice column for Good Housekeeping, and wrote a few design books that were well received by the public:







Her most famous piece of furniture is the Espana bunching chest (often referred to as the "Dorothy Draper chest").  The Spanish government approached Dorothy to design a piece for them in hopes that it would raise their profile in the international design market- and in 1953, a furniture icon was born! 

These chests are still seen today in a variety of spaces.  Even one of my favorite Houston designers, Sally Wheat, used a pair in her personal bedroom:


Draper chests were also spotted in Carrie's editor's office in Sex and the City:


There are several replicas on the market, but you'll know you've found a true Espana bunching chest if you see the Heritage stamp inside, and if the sides are beveled (not flat and flushed with the front of the drawer).

My Favorite Dorothy Draper Quotes:

"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!

"Never look back, except for an occasional glance, look ahead and plan for the future. Success is not built on past laurels, but rather on a continuous activity. Keep busy searching out new ideas and, experimentally, keep ahead of the times, or at least up with them." 

"I believe in doing the thing you feel is right.  If it looks right, it is right."

 "Your home is the backdrop of your life, whether it is a palace or a one-room apartment." "It should honestly be your own—an expression of your personality."

"I always put in one controversial item.  It makes people talk." 

{text sources:  herehere and here}

Read past "Honoring the Greats" posts:





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