Happy birthday Dorothy Draper! To celebrate this interior icon’s 129th birthday, we’re kicking off our Most Iconic Women in Design series by looking at five women whose stylistic influences still permeate and shape the world of interior decorating today.
The woman of the hour, Dorothy Draper is renowned for her eclectic, bold and vibrant decorating style. Founder of what is often considered the first ever interior design business, Architectural Clearing House, in 1925, and author of 1939 DIY book Decorating is Fun!, Draper once described interior decorating as “sheer fun: a delight in colour, an awareness of balance, a feeling for lighting, a sense of style, a zest for life and an amused enjoyment of the smart accessories.” Such sentiments are reflected in her playful work. Modern and classical styles are entwined in clashes of delightful, dramatic colours – an aesthetic which became so characteristic of Draper that it’s now known as the “Draper touch”. Among the spaces which received this special touch were the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia and Madison Avenue’s prestigious Carlyle Hotel.
You may be familiar with Nancy Lancaster as one half of the interiors duo Colefax & Fowler, whose work epitomises the romantic English country house style. An American heiress, Lancaster (born Perkins) adored England and became a British citizen during the Second World War out of solidarity. It was here that she began developing her characteristic country-inspired style, where antique trinkets, swathes of plush, textured materials and lush floral prints abound. Lancaster’s interiors were effortlessly curated to portray a look that was homely but never twee, timeless and elegant. In 1947 she bought Colefax & Fowler interiors company in Mayfair from Lady Sibyl Colefax and began what would become a 20-year collaboration with its manager, John Fowler. Throughout this often tempestuous partnership, Lancaster was commissioned for such prestigious projects as the Prime Minister’s holiday home at Chequers and the Audience Room at Buckingham Palace.
Madeleine Castaing is a long-time favourite of ours, not least due to her use of bold, rich colours and playful prints.
“I use three colours,” she said, “red, sky-blue, and the green of the gardens.” But take a look at any of Castaing’s most famed works, from the Saint James Hotel in Paris to her own Salon de la Rotonde in Chartres, and note the heavy peppering of loud animal prints, multi-tone, watercolour-effect wall adornments and tasselled fringing. Her salon perfectly encompasses what has come to be known as le style Castaing – or a cheeky and charming merge of Regency Classicism and eclectic Hollywood pizazz. An avid trawler of markets where she sourced inexpensive antique trinkets, Castaing spent her life effortlessly combining period styles and clashing prints to build an aesthetic still wholly recognisable today.
Elsie de Wolfe
‘I’m going to make everything around me beautiful – that will be my life’. This is the promise once uttered by Elsie de Wolfe, who is often dubbed “America’s first decorator”. De Wolfe led a glamorous, romantic life filled with adventure, alongside famed literary agent Bessie Marbury, with whom she spent 40 years in a “Boston marriage” (two female friends in a house-share). A budding actress, she was admired not for her acting but for her elegant and memorable style, which won her numerous high-status commissions like the elite women’s Colony Club, opera boxes and private homes. Her interior style? Uncluttered, fresh, warm and feminine. She loved to add Chinoiseries and the odd Palladian touch, and her penchance for including glazed chintz won her the nickname “Chintz Lady”. Just by looking at her beautiful decorative work, such as the Grand Treillage Teahouse, it seems she carried out her life promise.
The younger sister of renowned architect David Adler, it seems a career in design was always on the cards for American-born interior decorator Frances Elkins. In fact, growing up alongside Adler had a large influence on Elkins’ work. She spent much of her young adulthood travelling Europe with her older brother, meeting with Avant-Garde furniture designers and sculptors who would help shape Elkins’ future style; a harmonious melange of French and American, with Oriental touches. Consistency and symmetry featured largely in Elkins’ work – again, a nod to her brother’s influence – as did her favourite colour palette of blue, yellow and white. During her proliferous career, Elkins received many commissions for elite members clubs as well as from some of California’s most prominent families. One such family was that of Albert and Irma Schlesinger, whose daughter Nan praised Elkins particular ability to match her interiors with each client’s personality.